skies are patrolled by watchful eagles, glacier moulded landscapes wandered by the iconic and stoic red deer, the Caledonian forest home to the red squirrel and Scottish wildcat, whilst out on open waters orca cut through the waves of tumultuous Scottish seas, and the shifting tidal shores and waterways are fished by the European otter; and it’s these semi-aquatic mammals I want to focus on in this piece.
The European otter (Lutra lutra) belongs to a family of mammals called mustelids, and joining them in this clan are the likes of badger, ferret, mink, and the pine marten. Current population estimates of otter in Scotland are said to be around 8,000 strong, but despite this seemingly high number, they are not always the easiest of animals to find; in fact, mammals, by their very nature, are wary and shy, reliably in a state of high alert and caution. A wise sense to harness whilst living in the wilderness.
With an abundance of prey items, otter thrive in the nutrient rich shallows of Scottish waters, and though often referred to as ‘sea otters,’ these are indeed the same species that you would encounter inland and are certainly not a maritime specialist; unlike the sea otters (Enhydra lutris) of North America they are not entirely fit for purpose in a maritime environment. Though associated with mostly brackish and marine environments in Scotland, after spending time in saltwater, otter are required to wash the salt from their coats in a freshwater source, to keep their pelts in good condition. Thus providing a clear distinction between these animals and their cousins across the pond.
So how do we go about finding one then?
Well, the easiest path to sure success is to start by visiting well known hot spots, the western and northern isles are particularly good. The Isle of Mull, in the Inner Hebrides, is a clear stand out amongst photographers and is one of the most accessible otter watching hotspots in the whole of the UK let alone Scotland, offering incredible opportunities to enjoy these animals during daylight hours. On Mull there are ample roads that parallel great habitat increasing your spotting stakes exponentially, Loch na Keal in particular, can offer a swathe of otter spotting fun. I remember one morning spotting six separate individuals as I drove along the southern shore of the Loch.
To begin locating one, find a good vantage point over a stretch of tidal shallows, and scan that area – ideally with binoculars. Early mornings tend to be a great time, but in my experience, they can appear at any time of the day. In a perfect world you want the water to be as calm as possible, however that’s not always an option in Scotland!
Don’t forget as well that they are prone to having a nap and sleeping is a large part of an otters day, so they could easily be tucked in amongst the rocks or in a favoured holt.
An otter holt is a cavity or hole in the ground, located generally just above a riverbank or the tidal line. They use these holts to sleep and rest in, and mothers will give birth in holts; though these ‘nursery holts’ tend to be located far from the sea and away from the attention of any dog (male) otters that would likely kill any cubs to breed with the mother.
So, back to your search. While scanning, you’re looking for any movement ahead of you, whether that be splashing in the water or the movement of something along the shoreline or rock pools. Otters are easily missed if they are moving through rocks, etc., and picking one up in the water as they hunt is a far easier option.
Coastal otters have very routine feeding areas, particularly a mother with cubs. If prey is abundant, they will be hunting in favoured areas of coastline often, and honestly, prey such as butterfish, shanny, rockling, and crabs, never seem to be in short supply in west coast waters.
To photograph them efficiently, you can harness their hunting behaviour to your own advantage. This is because when they are in the water looking for prey, they will routinely dive for up to a minute or so, as they search for prey with their whiskers. This gives you a window of time to approach closer when you spot one, but make sure to stop once they return to the surface and stay low.
Move steadily, don’t rush it. If they sense or see you then it’s likely game over. After a short Mexican standoff, they will disappear with a splash, swimming farther away and not surfacing again until they are a good distance from you. This can disrupt their hunting attempt and, less importantly, crush your chances of a stunning close encounter.
If luck is on your side and this strategy is implemented correctly, you can achieve some amazing moments in the company of these beauties. But remember, these are wild animals and their welfare should always be paramount. Enjoy the moment and leave carefully.
In the past, I’ve had otters land a catch to shore right in front of me and start eating, and the best part was that they did not know I was right there with them. By remaining downwind and staying slightly obscured behind the rocks, I wasn’t registered as present, which is always a phenomenal thing.
My experience with otters has always been one of exhilaration, whether it’s from a spontaneous encounter or after hours of time spent waiting in the cold to purposely photograph one. Here on Islay, we have a good population of otters, and I’ve managed some real gems of encounters with them. It’s not always easy to find them here because the majority of the coastline of Islay is quite wild and inaccessible compared to the likes of Mull. We also don’t have swathes of shoreline visible from the majority of our roads, making impromptu encounters a little bit harder to come by. But with adequate fieldcraft, and time, the ability to have another encounter with these hairy fishing folk is always just around the corner.