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Otters on Mull

At one stage, this Otter popped up no more than 8 feet in front of me as I lay motionless next to a seaweed covered rock. I couldn’t move for fear of alerting him to my presence and he was way too close to focus the camera on anyway. I just sat there staring straight at him with nothing but seaweed between the two of us. After a few seconds of looking around it slid back in to the water to continue looking for food and was gone…but, in the minutes before, it had been gracious enough to provide me with the low level close up portrait I’d been after. It’s certainly one of the more memorable wildlife encounters I’ve had so far and another reminder of what an amazing island Mull is!

A simple portrait
Rewind two years
The Isle of Mull on the West Coast of the Scottish Highlands is well known amongst wildlife photographers – especially for the two main species, Eagles and Otters. I had my first encounter with an Otter on the final day of my previous trip to Mull. We hadn’t seen any all week, then finally, as we were waiting for the ferry back to Oban we saw the Otters feeding on some early morning fish. We only had a few minutes to try and get some shots as we could see the ferry coming across the water. All we really managed were grab shots but ever since then I’ve wanted to get better images of these lovely mammals and so when we finally set foot on Mull again after two years, we knew Otters were most definitely on the hit list! We’d done more research and felt hopeful that this visit would give much better results.

Where to look?
Spotting Otters can be tricky, they blend in well with the seaweed covered rocks and often, when out in the water, there little heads can be mistaken for rocks sticking out from the water. Slow driving and frequent stops along shorelines are your best bet for viewing these lovely animals so take your time and you should be rewarded for your efforts. .Our search for Otters started very positively indeed, despite awful weather, on our first day on the island we spotted 3 Otters along the shore of a Loch that had been mentioned several times whilst researching locations. The weather was very wet and very windy but we got out the car and attempted to head the trio off by getting in position further up the shore in the direction they were swimming. Scrambling down wet rocks isn’t ideal with a 600mm in one hand and a tripod in the other so when I slipped, something had to be dropped…the sound of my brand new Gitzo and Wimberley smacking off a rock isn’t one I wanted to hear but I didn’t let it deter me so left it where it lay and opted to use some nearby rocks for support. We got a few shots off but the light was bad and we were shooting at the very typical silver water and not at a low enough angle for my liking. We re-visited this location a couple of times but although we had further sightings we didn’t get the chance for any improved shots due to positioning of the Otters and weather conditions.

Outside our front door?
The bay our house was next too also had an Otter visit but it never came close to shore and even fed out in the middle of the water. We spent half an hour watching him one time from the comfort of the living room before I decided to take my chances against the elements. It was high tide, the rain was coming down like to there was no tomorrow and the wind was in full force. I opted for a position just the other side of our garden wall. The tide was in and so I lay down on a rock right at the waters edge, maybe 8″ from water level. The light was non-existent but the Otter was so far out I used my D300 to try and get some extra resolution over the D3 (using the benefit of DX field of view) but the shots came out pretty poor as my shutter speed was pitifully low in the poor light and stupidly strong wind! Needless to say after laying out there for 20 minutes I was thrilled when the Otter decided to swim out to sea so I could go back inside for a hot drink!

Otter feeding, D300, 600 + 1.4x TC, 1/160, f5.6, ISO 800

Rough weather, D300, 600 + 1.4x TC, 1/160, f5.6, ISO 800

The final location paid off
Our last Otter location was one that we hadn’t really planned on finding any at. We drove around the loch and it was only at the end when we decided to head back that my friend spotted this Otter down below. The light was lovely but the position wasn’t as we were up high shooting down at quite an angle. We got some shots in the bag before the Otter swam out to sea but I was still after more. So, on our last day we headed back to the previous days loch on the off chance of seeing if we could get another sighting. The light was quite dull again and at once point we just sat in the car as rain pelted us for 15 minutes. We had all but given up hope as we made our way back along the loch towards home when my friend once again spotted an Otter out in the seaweed covered rocks (seems so much easier to spot them when your the passenger lol). I parked the car and my friend ran along the road to position himself, whilst I went for the more risky plan of getting down to the shoreline and making my way towards the Otter. I knew there was more chance of being spotted but also knew I wouldn’t be happy with my shots if I didn’t get down low this time – I wanted to be shooting at the Otters level, not looking down at an angle.

Crab Catching

Crab catching

I made my way along the rocky shoreline trying very hard not to a) give myself away whilst b) not slipping over. My plan was simple, whilst the Otter was out catching food I’d scramble forward every time he dived…then, I’d stay hidden when it surfaced and wait for the next dive and repeat the process. A couple of times the Otter came ashore to eat and I’d use that as a chance to move forward as well, if it was feeding behind rocks.

Otter eating crab

Crab eating

Eventually I got myself in position although I couldn’t see exactly where he was but I could see my friend up at the road pointing his lens a bit further ahead so I sat and waited. Eventually I spotted the Otter moving about between rocks so maintained my position, hoping he would come out from his cover. After sitting for maybe 5 or 10 minutes there seemed to be no signs of movement any more. I looked over at my friend and he shrugged his shoulders, somehow the Otter had moved and neither of us had seen him go…we thought it was the end of the session but then, as I was about to get up from my position, the Otter popped back up maybe 25 to 30 feet right in front of me!

Drying off

Drying off

I was lucky enough that I got a good 10 to 15 minutes with the Otter this close before it started to make it’s way down the loch…towards me!! I started to wonder if I might have a much closer encounter than I had every imagined as the Otter popped up so close to me that I got a full frame shot of the side of his head as he poked it up over a rock. Then before I knew it, he was back in to the water and out of sight only to then pop up ashore right in front of me…as in, nothing between me and him at all other than some seaweed, no more than 8 feet in front of me. I stayed perfectly still expecting him to suddenly realise that in front of him wasn’t a rock but in fact a human dressed from head to toe in black waterproof gear. He stared straight at me before continuing to rummage around for several seconds before he was back in the water and in search of food, slowly making his way up the shore. It was at that point that we called it a day, I didn’t want to risk following and scaring him away from his hunting patch and I knew I had been very lucky to get myself so close to this wonderful animal undetected in the first place – so decided to quite whilst we were ahead.

Otter in the rain

Caught in the rain

Although I tend not to like putting higher res images online, the image above of the Otter in the rain looks so much better when viewed larger due to all the detail, so please click the following link to view the image at higer res.

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Looking out to sea

So that was a perfect end to an otherwise very wet and dull week (you can read about the week in general here). So although the weather may have been against us for the most part the Otters were my main subject of choice for the week and I feel very privileged to have come so close to them in the short time we stayed on the island – and even more so to have captured the experience on camera. It’s certainly one I won’t soon forget and it’s encounters like this that remind me why I love wildlife photography!

About the author

Richard Peters is a Surrey based professional wildlife photographer, Nikon Ambassador, and one of the few British photographers to receive the accolade of European Wildlife Photographer of the Year. He is known for a style that often favours dramatic use of light, runs wildlife photography workshops and, from camera clubs to big industry events, holds talks about his work.

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