Coastal Otters: A wildlife photographer’s guide – Finding Otters

If I’m on the Isle of Mull for a week, I’ll photograph otters at least every day, sometimes, multiple sessions in a day. Some days, it seems that everywhere I look, there is an otter. However, on most days, the searching is lengthy and laborious, requiring methodical scanning of open water, floating seaweed, flotsam and jetsam, and the rocky shoreline.

I’ve experienced many highlights including: Interaction between female otters and their cubs; Territorial disputes between neighbouring otters; Watching otters swim below the surface through crystal clear water; Sitting only just metres away from otters as they rub themselves dry on the seaweed; Sitting next to two otters mating.

My daily routine is simple…

  • Wake up early, have a sustaining breakfast, remind myself of tidal times;
  • Be at the loch-side for pre-dawn;
  • Drive and/or walk the coastal roads until I find an otter;
  • Back to cottage for lunch, change of clothes;
  • Return to lochs for afternoon session and stay passed sunset;
  • Back to cottage for hot shower, dinner, batteries on charge, editing session, bed.

As you can see, there isn’t much room for sightseeing. I am committed to spending every available minute of daylight to finding and photographing otters. Unless it’s right in front of my lens, I sacrifice sightings of buzzards, close encounters with deer, and all manner of other good wildlife opportunities. It’s fair to say I become a little obsessed. But, I’m not on holiday. I’m there for otters.

European Otter (Lutra lutra)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Isle of Mull, United Kingdom with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 600.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

Searching Methodology

  1. Drive to headland or rocky outcrop, anywhere that will give you a wide aspect view of shoreline up and down the coast.
  2. Get out of the car whatever the weather. You will only have a very limited view from inside.
  3. Scan open water up to 50m from shore with naked eye.
  4. Use binoculars or scope to quick-scan water and seaweed margin.
  5. Pay particular attention to shore margins, gravel spits, headlands, semi-submerged rocks, jetties and piers.
  6. Repeat search, methodically studying all prominent rocks and floating seaweed.

Key Approach Techniques

A pair of high-quality binoculars or a spotting scope is essential. Otters blend into their surroundings very well especially when wet. Quality optics can help enhance the light and contrast in dull, wet, and overcast conditions – pretty much your everyday occurrence on the Isle of Mull.

From the car

Drive slowly around the loch. You will never see an otter if you’re speeding. Be aware of other road users and always keep in mind my Ground Rules from page 2.

If you do spot an otter from the car, do not slow down or stop. Continue driving passed the otter. Some otters are sensitive to slowing cars and may dive and flee. Park some distance away (two hundred metres or so) and walk back, constantly checking the wind direction. Search the shoreline for other wildlife watchers and photographers. Do not tread on anyone else’s toes!

European Otter (Lutra lutra)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Isle of Mull, United Kingdom with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 600.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

On foot

Make sure you wear dark, muted clothing – camouflage is not essential, but muddy-browns and dark greens are best. Wear strong, waterproof, and gripping footwear. Bladder-wrack seaweed, algae, and kelp are incredibly slippery. Waterproof boots and gators will also give you the advantage in that you can walk through rock pools without worrying about wet feet.

Avoid trudging along in regular, even paces, especially over noisy surfaces like gravel and shingle. To an otter, this signals a warning that a clumsy biped is on the way. Always approach the shore and otter from downwind and do not expose your outline to the horizon or any bright objects (such as white-washed cottages and walls).

Approach, keeping an eye on what’s behind you, moving toward the shoreline in stages, using boulders or trees as cover. The otter’s direction can change unpredictably, so once you’ve spotted it, do not take your eyes off the otter for more than an instant. Staging gives you time to pause and assess the otter’s direction and most likely landfall point.

European Otter (Lutra lutra)
European Otter (Lutra lutra), female rubbing dry on seaweed, Isle of Mull, Scotland, UK

Your best opportunity

When an otter catches a fish too large to handle in the water, it will make for the closest landfall point – usually a submerged rock or shingle spit. What looks closest to you may not be what the otter sees, so be absolutely sure before you make a scramble for it.

Your golden moment is when the otter pushes for the shore and submerges. Each time the otter submerges, you scramble forward, pausing as it surfaces. The more you know the otter, the better you will anticipate where the otter will make land.

Otters have a great sense of hearing. Wear noiseless materials like saddlecloth and fleece – avoid scratchy Gortex waterproofs. Their sensitive hearing works just as well underwater, so if you’re crunching the shingle as you approach, the otter will hear you. Consequently, when the otter breaks the surface, it will be looking for the source of the noise, hence why you need to freeze and remain still.

Often you will have to sacrifice the best light to stay downwind of the otter. It can be frustrating but work with it and bracket exposures, try silhouettes or high-key, or just watch and admire this very privileged view.

The most frustrating aspect is getting into a great position, close to the water’s edge, only to find the otter has sneaked the rocks and is completely obscured. You just have to chalk that down to experience. It is no bad thing to be outmanoeuvred by an otter.

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