Coastal Otters: A wildlife photographer’s guide – Ground Rules

It is a magnificent feeling to watch wild otters in the wild, undisturbed. Following an otter through its foraging, preening, resting, and marking routine – until reaches its Holt once again – is, and always should be, your goal. Not frame filling photographs. They will come naturally as your technique and skills improve.

Minimise otter disturbance

With otters, the chance of disturbance is very high and needs to be avoided at all costs. Photographers and wildlife watchers would do well to understand the complexities and sensitivities of otter behaviour. Rather than merely throwing open the car door and sprinting down to the shoreline, trying to get as close as possible. Well, we will always want to get closer, probably too close for what is right, sensible, and safe. I follow two rules with otters and (unrealistically) expect everybody else to do likewise:

Rule 1: The welfare of the otter is paramount.

Rule 2: If you disturb an otter do not repeat your stalk. Let the otter go and do not follow.

Otter basking on riverbank (March 2006)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Loch Don, Isle of Mull, Scotland with 300mm lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

Curb your enthusiasm

Photographic encounters must always be a balance between proximity, respect for the otter and its habitat. A healthy dollop of luck never goes amiss, either.

If your only intention is to get close-up photographs you will a) be very disappointed, b) grow increasingly frustrated, c) miss out on a truly inspirational encounter. d) be no more than a contemptible ignoramus.

Rules of the road

Hoping to miraculously spot an otter, wildlife watchers and photographers routinely drive around and around the lochs, constantly on the move. A big “No! No!”. For your own health and safety, and that of other road users, do not drive and search for otters, at the same time.

The only safe way to search for otters whilst driving is with at least two people in the car – one driving and focussed on the road, the other ‘passenger’ searching for otters.  If you are searching for otters alone, drive from point-to-point, stop your vehicle periodically  and continue the search on foot.

Ewe & Lamb (May 2009)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Loch Spelve, Isle of Mull, Scotland with 600mm lens at ¹⁄₁₂₅ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 200

A word of caution

The roads on Mull are narrow and winding with many blind corners, blind summits, and surprise obstructions such as dislodged rocks, deer, and livestock. The lanes are hazardous with loose gravel and very deep potholes.

The loch roads are only single lanes with occasional passing places. Avoid parking in these ‘passing places’ as this both obstructs other road users and infuriates the local inhabitants. Find a flat grassy verge or park or in one of the designated camping car parks. If you must park in a ‘passing place’ then edge right up to one end so there is plenty of room for other cars.

I recommend that you travel very slowly (10mph) in order to stand any chance of spotting an otter from the car. Please be mindful of other road users and use the passing places to allow other drivers to overtake you. Do not hold up traffic! Please be a courteous and considerate visitor to the island.

  1. Introduction
  2. Ground Rules
  3. Camera Gear
  4. Finding & Approaching
  5. Useful Observations
  6. Making Mistakes
  7. Stay Safe
  8. Otter Facts