I’ve waxed lyrical on this blog about my love of mountain hares, well, truth be told, although that is true, they actually come second in my affections, pipped at the post by the otter.
I’ve loved these playful, secretive mammals for as long as I can remember. They have such wonderful personalities, and I can’t think of an animal I enjoy watching more primarily because not only do they genuinely seem to have fun with each other, but they also so obviously have deep family bonds.
Finding, and then photographing them though can be a challenge. Earlier this year I was delighted to spend a day with the river otters in the Scottish Borders courtesy of Laurie Campbell. This was a fantastic experience where we saw far more otters than I had expected including a little, ever-so-cute cub which sat in the undergrowth at the side of the river just long enough for us to take a few photos before it slipped into the water and disappeared. This was the warmest day of the year so far with glorious blue skies – great for sitting and waiting for otters to appear, but not so great for photographing them! Interesting to observe the different characteristics of the otters that dwell in rivers though – it’s the same species, but quite different in many respects.
It was back to sea otters in late April when I spent a week on Mull. Unfortunately the tides weren’t in my favour and although I saw otters I had few opportunities to photograph them.
On my return, frustrated both by this and some disappointing news, I had a look on Andy Howard’s website and noticed he had one place available on the second of his two inaugural November otter workshops – on a whim I dropped him an email to see if it was in fact still available and before I knew it I was booked for a week on Mull! I first came across Andy after I had fallen for the mountain hares – he has spent many a day on the mountainside with the hares and has some wonderful images, but I also love Andy’s other photographs. He’s great at bringing out the essence of his subject which is something I strive to do in my photography too, so I was looking forward to spending a week with him and fellow guide Pete Walkden.
I headed over to Mull on the 10am Sunday morning ferry planning to spend the day before the official start time of 5pm doing some otter-spotting of my own. I headed for one of the lochs and was just getting myself organised when Andy and Pete pulled up and asked if I wanted to join them – minutes later we were crawling through the rocks to photograph a mother and cub curled up together on some seaweed – something I love to watch and saw many times over the course of the week. Suffice to say after this experience my expectations were high for the week!
I was paired with Brian, a retired head teacher from Northern Ireland who had been on a number of Andy’s previous highland tours. We were both capable of navigating the slippy shore rocks which would hopefully provide us with more chance of getting close to the otters. We rotated guides – 3 days with Pete and 2 with Andy. I used my Nikon D500 mostly with the original Nikkor 300mm F4 lens and 1.4TC giving me a focal length of 630mm. This is a much lighter (and cheaper!) combination than that of Andy, Pete and Brian who all sported Canon cameras and 500 or 600mm prime lenses – beyond my carrying capacity and budget.
Over the course of the week we primarily photographed two pairs of otters – both mother and cub, and another mother with two young cubs. There were other single otters too, but the family groups were more interesting – the interactions between the otters is so wonderful to witness. Interestingly two of these otter families were each joined on occasion by another otter with whom they were affectionate and playful – we think in both cases these were older siblings, no longer with the mother but maintaining a strong bond.
Andy and Pete took time to explain the field craft required to spot and approach the otters and were helpful with camera settings too. The biggest challenge by far all week was the weather. Monday was drizzly rain which swirled around getting on the camera lens no matter how hard I tried to protect it. Tuesday was miserable – I’ve never been so wet, and the images suffered from the lack of light and sheets of rain falling from the sky. Wednesday was the best day but there wasn’t much in the way of wind and then Thursday/Friday we had ice showers…!
Monday we spent time with the same otters as I’d photographed on Sunday, recognisable by the raw patch on mum’s nose.
…as well as another mum and cub – this cub had the most adorable teddy bear face!
Tuesday was miserable – I don’t think I’ve ever been so wet. Fortunately my thermal/waterproof hunting trousers from Decathlon proved to be resilient as did my jacket so I stayed dry. Both Brian and I had issues with our hats falling over our eyes though! Rain covers on the cameras were more essential than usual, but it was a struggle as there was no light to speak of so camera ISO was higher than I’d have liked and as a result these aren’t the highest quality images you’ll ever see. That said we still had plenty of otter encounters.
Wednesday was SO much better, not exactly sunny and we still had some rain showers, but nothing like Tuesday. That said, there was little wind to speak of and as such Pete, Brian and I were incredibly lucky to have two brilliant encounters. Firstly with the mother and cub from Tuesday and then a mother with two cubs and an older sibling.
The mother and cub (my favourite squeaky fur ball) were initially quite a distance away allowing for these wider in the frame images (a kind of image I love).
Then after a quick dip in the loch, they snuggled up together on the seaweed for a snooze. Mum eventually left the cub to go fishing and it remained curled up…
Mum returned with a fish which they shared – she then departed again and the wee cub was mobbed by some hooded crows – it held its own though.
I have a shaky little video of the otter with the hoodies which can be watched here.
Driving back along the coastline Pete spotted the Mum with 2 little cubs. We crawled as close as we could (still a fair way back) and suddenly realised there were 4 otters – we presume an older sibling was visiting. The two cubs were very young, and one of them really wasn’t very enthusiastic about going in the water. It would follow the other out for a metre or two, but would then turn around and head back to shore where it sat and squeaked until the others returned. At one point both the cubs were entwined on the promontory – adorable…
Thursday was cold but yet again we had a fantastic day, this time with Andy. First photograph I took wasn’t of an animal at all though but a stunning rainbow over the far shore…
We came across the mother with the raw nose and her cub just before they returned to their holt.
Then we photographed a dog otter. We tracked it along the shoreline and Andy correctly anticipated where it would come ashore. Unfortunately yet again the mammal decided to hang out in a dip in the seaweed so although it rolled about we couldn’t get any clear images!
We then located one-eyed mum and cub. On one occasion she brought a fish on shore for the cub, seeing it was struggling, she disappeared and returned with a smaller, more palatable fish for it and took the other for herself – although when the cub had finished its meal it tried to steal the other one back! Then Andy spotted that the mother had caught an octopus (or squid) and we quickly got ourselves in position lying on top of a large flat rock. Unfortunately as is so often the case, a pesky boulder got in the way so I wasn’t able to get any good octopus images, this was the best I managed.
However the cub treated us to some golden moments. They were so close and we were all snapping away, but neither otter seemed remotely bothered – maybe because we smelt so strongly of the sea/seaweed by this time they didn’t have the faintest idea we were there!
Our final experience with this pairing was the most enjoyable to watch – Pete and I (Brian had left early) had seen the two of them and were tracking them along the shore. Suddenly there were three! The mother and the new otter were very affectionate and the little one took great delight in playing with it in the sea diving and jumping – brilliant to watch but very difficult to photograph especially as the light was constantly changing.
The week was all about otters, but I did photograph a few hooded crows as well as a buzzard that sat perched on a mound of grass in the pouring rain, seemingly oblivious to our car and the three snapping cameras. Rain was running down its back and dripping off it’s beak. Suddenly it leapt in the air and onto the ground, rising with a vole. Annoyingly, although I was able to photograph the entire sequence my shutter speed was far too low. You win some… There were many many buzzards and herons. We saw the odd white-tailed eagle, but I was never close enough to photograph (Andy and Michelle got some fantastic images of two white-tails mobbing an otter), and we also saw one distant golden eagle and hen harrier.
It was a great week, every single day provided wonderful opportunities with the otters – helped by Andy and Pete’s knowledge of the island and its occupants and their ability to spot the otters where most would miss them. I think the fact that Brian and I were mobile and able to crawl across slippy rocks and wet seaweed to get into a good position helped too. I can see why the otters curl up on the seaweed – it was really comfortable to lie on!
Andy and Pete are running the November tours again in 2018, check out their facebook pages or websites for details, I can definitely recommend it!