Photographing Wildlife – How to Get Close Otters

Photographing Wildlife – How to Get Close Otters

For my recent video on photographing otters on the Isle of Mull, I used a few techniques to get close enough to this incredible species while causing minimum disturbance. This is a very important element of the kind of wildlife photography I enjoy taking. For this post, I want to dive a bit deeper on how to do this.

I believe that they key to photographing any wild animal is to understand a bit about its ecology and its behaviour. Having this information will enormously assist you in the field. Therefore, taking a bit of time to research the species and plan your photography expedition will greatly enhance your chances of finding the species and being able to get close to it without disturbing it.

Otter Ecology

The otter (Lutra lutra) is part of the Mustelid family, a family of carnivorous mammals also including badgers, martens, mink, weasels, wolverines and ferrets.

They are a semi-aquatic species, and live along rivers, wetland areas and coastal habitats.

They feed on fish, especially eels, as well as crabs, frogs, and crayfish.

Canon 7Dii, 117mm, f/5.6, 1/1000s, ISO 800

Otters can travel over large distances, and have been known to have territories as great as 20 kilometres. They deposit spraints in prominent places throughout their range to mark their territory.

Otter spraint

In the UK, otters were once common. However, their numbers declined for various reasons, but mainly due to pollution and habitat destruction, and in the 1950s and 1960s the otter became extinct across most of England. The Environment Agency announced in 2011 that otters were now recorded in every English county.

They have always had a strong hold in Scotland – but it is still quite a rare and special experience to spot one.

Where to Find Otters

Although they are now widespread, otters’ secretive and often nocturnal habits and riverine habitat make them difficult to glimpse, let alone observe, in the wild in England.

There are a few places where otters can be seen, but by far, the best place to see otters in Britain is western Scotland, where they can regularly be seen foraging along the coast.

For this post, I am focusing on photographing otters on the Isle of Mull and the West Coast of Scotland. While they are all the same species in the UK, behaviourally, coastal otters differ from freshwater otters.

Still, they are notoriously difficult to spot and they are extremely sensitive to disturbance. As such, in my recent video I explained I was very keen to photograph them without causing any disturbance.

Getting Close to Coastal Otters

From conversations with locals, and previous drives and recce trips around the Isle of Mull, I knew I had a decent chance of sighting otters around Loch na Keal on the west of the island.

Over several days, I spent a few hours driving this route, pausing in lay-bys now and again and scanning for five minutes. This can be done with the naked eye, so that you can get your eye in. When something catches your eye, lift your binoculars and have a better look. I use 8×42 Viking Binoculars from my birding days.

Another thing to point out here is that this was significantly easier on wind-still days where the sea was clear and calm. This makes it much easier to catch sight of anything. if the water is choppy, then the small amount of time that the otter spends above the surface means that you have such a slim chance of catching it between the waves before it dives again.

After watching from the car for a while I started walking the coastline whilst scanning with my binoculars, and finally, I caught sight of an otter. I wanted to get closer in order to get a better angle for photography so I started to stalk the species up the coastline. 

My gear consisted of Muckboots, waterproof trousers, ghillie coat, hat and waterproof sealskinz gloves.  Check out my full gear list here.

Suiting up in the ghillie coat

In order to minimise or avoid disturbance, I moved extremely slowly up the shore. When stalking, you also want to walk into the wind, keeping the wind in your face in order that the animal cannot catch your scent. At one point I ended up upwind of the otter – which meant that it was downwind of me, and might have been able to detect me.

When this happened, I went inland, kept still, and waited for it to pass.

The otter spends much of its time below the surface, hunting for eels and other prey, so i would use this time to move location.

I watched it dive several times, and each time counted how long it dove for. I found it was spending about 30 seconds per dive, so to be extra careful I would move for about 20 seconds or less.

I managed to do this for about an hour while I did my filming and photography, and the entire time the otter showed no signs of knowing I was there. At one point I disturbed a flock of gulls, but the otter appeared not to be disturbed by their alarm calls which was interesting – and probably lucky.

Understanding the ecology and the behaviour of the species is very important, and this can be done with some advance research.

But at the end of the day, the best way to learn these skills and get close to wildlife is to practice. The more time you spend in the field, the more you will learn about your subject:

  • where it frequently hunts, rests, and even breeds,
  • in the case of otters, how much time it spends out to sea hunting
  • how far out it goes
  • spotting it while it’s resting among seaweeds

Canon 7Dii, 271mm, f/5.6, 1/1000s, ISO 800

Canon 7Dii, 142mm, f/5.6, 1/1000s, ISO 800

I was very pleased with how this experience went, as my goal is to be able to take photos of wildlife and get close to the species and not disturb them.

I’d always rather not disturb the animal, not get close enough and not get the photograph, than do anything I can to get the photograph and risk disturbing the species.

I also did a YouTube video photographing otters for Tragopan who specialises in wildlife photography gear.  Check it out below.

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