Coastal Otters: A wildlife photographer’s guide – Avoiding Mistakes

Watching Otters: Making Mistakes

We all make mistakes with wildlife. Improving as a wildlife photographer is all about making sure you don’t repeat those mistakes and that you continue to learn and improve from hard-won lessons. Just remember, these are wild animals, with their own lives and struggles. They have the right not to be disturbed, just the same as you or I. Life is touch enough for these animals that live on a knife-edge.

If you disturb an otter, try to leave the scene with the same stealth (if not more, if you have disturbed it) as your approach. The otter may seem to disappear but often they are still around, lying semi-submerged with just eyes and nose breaking the surface.

European Otter (Lutra lutra)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Isle of Mull, United Kingdom with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 300.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 400

In the swirling breeze along the shoreline, an otter may catch your scent. It will make ‘huff!’ noise, a sharp exhale and inhale. Usually, this is followed immediately by a deep dive. Stay perfectly still. The otter may have only travelled a few metres. They can emerge again, even closer to you, as they attempt to assess what you are and/or where the smell came from.

If you keep still, the otter may well carry on about its normal routine. If you have really disturbed an otter, it will dive and just disappear. Otters can swim at speeds of 12km/hr underwater and can travel for up to 400m before surfacing for air. More than likely they will head for a nearby holt or couch, round the nearest outcrop of rocks, or to the middle of the loch, or even across the loch to the opposite shore. If this has happened, please not follow the otter.

Leave the scene and move on.

Although very rewarding, getting close to otters can be very difficult and frustrating. Your stalking skills require refinement and discipline – which is easier said than done, slipping on your backside in squelching, smelly seaweed. Many stalks will end in misery, without a photo, but with a fair amount of bruising.

Just bear in mind that with each stalk, you learn a bit more about otters and, just as importantly, about yourself and your stalking technique.


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