Coastal Otters: A wildlife photographer’s guide – Observations

Here’s a collection of observations that will help you locate coastal otters in the wilds of Scotland and The Hebrides…

  1. Look for gently shelving coastline with lots of exposed seaweed at low-tide.
  2. Seaweed is extremely important for otters. Otters hunt for fish and crabs (more juveniles than adults) in the seaweed. As the tide rises, the seaweed and kelp are invaded by small fish and crabs picking of exposed morsels. As the tide recedes the seaweed then traps the fish and crabs in the shallows and rock pools.
  3. Periodically, otters leave the water to preen, to scent mark, to rest and bask in the sun. This is all done in the camouflaged shelter of the seaweed.
  4. The water has to recede away from the shore exposing a wide margin of seaweed in which the otters can safely hunt. Once the rising tide covers the margin, otters will usually return to their Holts or safe resting places (couch).
  5. Otters take larger catches (those that cannot be consumed in the open water) to exposed rocks, headlands, jetties, or islets where they can gain a better grip on their prey. A prime opportunity to photograph them.
  6. Look for sand/gravel banks close to the shore or headlands and spits that jut out into the lochs. When fishing in the lochs, otters will make for the closest landfall to them. They will often fish off exposed rocks, land, even piers and jetties, anything that extends into the water.
  7. When an otter swims on the surface, it creates a recognisable signature bow wave. However this is only evident if the water is calm and flat. Moreover, the only time an otter swims any distance on the surface (long enough to create a bow wave) is when they are coming in to shore.
  8. Spotting an otter in open water is never easy. If the water is choppy, it’s practically impossible with the troughs and crests of waves. If you look for three humps in the water, you can automatically eliminate both cormorants and seals as these only make one or two humps. That just leaves seaweed, rocks, logs, etc. but these don’t move forward.
  9. Dog (male) otters are constantly on the move, keeping their territories marked and free from invading rogue males. Their lives are a continuous cycle of scent marking, hunting, and sleeping.
  10. I have walked several kilometres of coastline watching a dog otter climb on to exposed landmark rocks and islets, rub, spraint, hunt for a short time, and then move to the next landmark to repeat the routine. Remember that with every high tide the majority of scent marks are washed away, so the dog otter is compelled to refresh them after every tide cycle. 
  11. With regular observation you will come to recognise the major landmarks and use this information to anticipate the otter’s movements and position yourself better for photography. Female otters also mark their territories but not with the same obsessive dedication and their territories are much smaller.
  12. Female otters ‘patch hunt’ meaning that they select an islet, rock or spit and hunt from there until they are exhausted, have satiated their hunger, or have fished out the seaweed. Only then (or if they are disturbed) will females move on. For this reason, female otters make for the better subject as they are more predictable. When they catch something large they will keep returning to the same place to eat it – giving you the advantage.
  13. Young otter cubs can be fearless and inquisitive. If you are on shore and close by, one may well approach you and come within inches. Please DO NOT extend a ‘hand of friendship’ no matter how cute they appear to be. Remain perfectly still and let the cub move away naturally. Otters can have a litter of 1-4 cubs. Even young otters have a ferocious bite – one of the most powerful in the natural kingdom for its body size.
  14. Some argue that otters have poor-eyesight or are practically blind. This is untrue I’ve been very obviously spotted several times, even in full camo. They can see perfectly well, just differently from you and me.
  15. People forget that, although these otters live on the coast, they are still the River Otter species, Lutra lutra. River Otters, are active during both day and night, feeding mostly on fish. Behavioural observations have shown that the river otter hunts predominantly by vision, although they do have extremely sensitive whiskers (vibrissae) that help detect prey in dark and murky water or at night.
  16. Otters see with reduced colour tones (cone dichromacy). This is why dark, muted clothing or camo is ideal. Otters are shortsighted and have a ‘sharp sight’ range of just a few metres. Behavioural experiments with L. lutra, carried-out in shallow water, have shown that they can discriminate the colours blue and green from various shades of grey.
  17. Otters have large territories, from 1km of rich coastline to 40km of river. On the Isle of Mull, the territories can run several kilometres of coastline and span across entire lochs, from shore to shore. A male otters’ territory will cover several female territories.
  18. Otters can be individually identified by the shape of their noses, whiteness and size of their pale throat patch, and darkness/lightness of their lips.
  19. Otters often come on shore to leave longer-lasting messages called ‘spraints’. You may see these on grassy mounds around the lochs. Otters often come up from the shore to have a good rub on the grass. They will also visit their ‘spraint mount’. This is a special place where the otter will defecate regularly and repeatedly. It can build to be quite a size and, over time, can grass over to be a prominent mound. 

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