Here's the best shot that never was, of an elusive otter...


Let me explain...!

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of enjoying a week on the Isle of Mull. While it was to be a break with both family and friends, I was excited at the prospect of shooting some of the abundant wildlife to be found there.  There was one main subject that I wanted to capture: Enhydra lutris -  the Sea Otter.

When we booked the cottage we were to stay in, I had no idea it would be so close to an area that was perfect Sea Otter habitat.  I didn't find this out, until mid way through my week on Mull!

We were spoiled with the weather for the duration of our stay - I managed to take some stunning sunset landscapes as the last rays of light spread across the Sound of Mull, and the sun dipped behind Ardnamurchan on the mainland. It was only on the Wednesday, with only two days left of our stay, that we stumbled upon a Sea Otter playing in the shallows, at Fishnish.  The signs were all there - crustacean shells, otter droppings, a perfect habitat; and yet it had taken us all week to come across our first Otter. Camera in hand, and with the light failing fast, I could only manage a few long distance shots: Even with the 70-200 IS f2.8 and a 2x Mk3 extender on, at 400mm, it was still, just a little too far away.  I fired off a few frames, but before we knew it, it was aware of our presence, and slipped back into the deeper water, not to be seen again that evening.  It really amazes me how stealthy these animals are, when they need to be.

Otter in shallows 1  Otter in shallows 2

So that was that... we retired to the cottage and enjoyed the rest of the evening, happy that we'd witnessed one of these elusive creatures in it's natural environment.

The next night, we did the same - drawing a blank for the first 15 mins, we only managed a fleeting glimpse of the local otter population - 2 mins in the distance, and far out of range of the 400mm...

That was that - it was Friday night and we were due to leave early the next morning. My chance to capture the otter had evaded me. Well... until my 3 month old son decided to wake us at 5 am the following morning - my last few hours on Mull. Awake, and unable to get back to sleep, I decided a quick foray down to the shoreline at Fishnish (without 4 noisey friends in tow), would be the ideal way to try and capture this elusive Sea Otter!

After half an hour. Nothing. Conditions were too perfect. The sun was peeping through the clouds in the East, casting a warm orange glow over the Sound of Mull. The water was almost flat calm, with just a few ripples on an otherwise smooth surface. Even the midges weren't biting - an ever so gentle breeze seemed to keep them at bay.  This was it, I thought - if ever I'm going to capture Enhydra lutris, this was it.

I waited.

...and waited.


The cloud came in and it seemed to get darker. The wind speed rose and I though that my chance was over.

I crept from my hidden vantage point, and moved further along the shoreline, covering about 1/2 a mile.  Suddenly, the water surface broke and up popped a large, rich brown shape that I immediatley recognised as my target for the morning. Just out of range!  I fired off a couple of shots, just to prove to myself that it was infact, what I'd come to see.  A quick review on the back of the camera revealed all. An otter: a juggling otter: Juggling a small clam, and lying on it's back.  Now, if I could only get closer, I might have a chance of getting that shot I was after...

Otter bobbing

Otter bobbing 2

The next 20 mins were a game of cat and mouse. I stayed back from the shoreline near to the trees, to try and evade his alert glances. Knowing that we'd scared it off too easily on previous encounters, I was in full stealth mode, as I crept along the bank.  Every time the otter submerged, I moved. As quickly as possible. The aim was to get ahead of it. Every time it surfaced, I froze. Usually, in some contorted crouch, thighs burning as I waited for him to dive again. A regular pattern emerged - 30 seconds beneath the surface, followed by 15 seconds bobbing around...  slowly, moving 10 meters at a time along the shore.  I kept my patience, and moved ahead of him, firing off a couple of long range shots, to reassure myself that when the opportunity arose, my camera was set up correctly to capture the perfect image. 

Otter spotting interlude.

Between me and the otter, on the horizon of the rocky shore, a small dark, sleek shaped head popped up. "Baby Otter!" I thought to myself! How exciting - could this be the moment I was waiting for!?  It dipped behind the rocks and I made my move towards the shore. I got into a perfect position, with a large rock to my back, hidden and waited.  The Sea Otter that was feeding off shore surfaced again several times, edging closer with each minute.  Reluctant to scare it off, I held back from opening the shutter, for fear of him hearing me, and the chance to miss out on a perfect opportunity as he came closer.

To my right, something caught my eye. The "baby otter" reappeared. Only, it wasn't a "baby otter", it was what I later found out to be: a Mink.  He popped his head above some rocks, a few meters along the shore, and knew exactly that I was there. It didn't seem to bother him, and in a brazen display of curiosity, he crept closer and closer, darting behind rocks, and poking his nose in the air getting a feel for what I was all about... Here's the sequence of images I fired off as he approached: Wonderful.

Mink   Mink   Mink

Mink Mink   Mink  


As the cheeky little fella worked out that I posed no threat, or rather, had no fish for him, he bounded back off along the shore, and swam across some shallows, foraging for food. Meanwhile, I'd been distracted from my primary target. Turning the camera back out to sea, he was close. Much closer than before and as I fired of a few frames, all I caught was his back and tail, as he dived once again. 

Dive, Dive, Dive!

This close to the shore, and with such a regular pattern of movement, I could predict exactly where he was going to surface. I decided to move again, a little further and just around a small rocky outcrop, ready  and waiting.  It was moments away.

On cue he emerged where I'd thought he would. Eel in mouth, but was only for a fraction of a second. Predicting his next move, I panned right... finger hovering over the shutter, primed for the PERFECT shot. 

Only this time he didn't appear where I thought. Oh no, this time, he was almost by my feet, peering round a rock a little over a metre away! Aaargh! My camera was pointing at 90 degrees to him.  We shared a moment that seemed to last an hour - he looked at me, I looked at him. Who was going to be quickest? In the milliseconds I took to decide if i should swing quickly and shoot, or stay still and pray for him to go about his business, he'd already made his mind up.  The world seemed to slow down, and as I panned my camera, his decision had already been made. Off he went.

And so, that brings me a full circle to the image at the top of this blog entry: What could have been - a millisecond after he'd lept out of sight..


I never saw him again. Only a line of bubbles a few meters off shore, tracing a path away from me.  I'd been surprised at just how large he was - I guess when you see them off shore, the perspective is somewhat lost and you don't really appreciate what a large animal they are.

I was happy to have had such a close encounter though, packed up my equipment and headed back to the cottage. Time to pack and catch the ferry. What a fantastic morning, even if I had missed out on that perfect image. I guess that sums up a lot of wildlife photography - making those opportunities count when you get the chance, and just being plain lucky, when the moment comes. Sadly, this time, lady luck wasn't on my side!

Mr. Otter: I'll be back!
( time, with an 800mm and some more dedication to a few more early mornings!)