Sea-Changers blog – January otters and dolphins

This is my blog about my wildlife photography partnership with marine-conservation charity Sea-Changers. For 
my main blog please click HERE .   

Otter attacking razorbillAn otter attacking a razorbill in the Inner Moray Firth this week. An extraordinary piece of behaviour to witness.

An otter sighting to remember
At times this winter it has felt like there has been no respite from the grey, the lack of light, the gloom. Low pressure has defined the weather since November – crisp, frosty days a rarity and a mild conditions bringing a seemingly endless supply of cloud. Spotting any marine mammals out in the choppy waters of the Inner Moray Firth has been difficult but this week my luck changed, and my efforts were rewarded with something quite unexpected.

Since the middle of January we’ve experienced a few spells of much colder weather, and this usually signals a good time to go out looking for otters. Lower temperatures cause otters to spend more time feeding to compensate for their higher energy expenditure, so they spend more time out in the water and less in their holts. In general my local otters are not easy to see – they frequent a beach covered in large boulders and the area of water they hunt in is frequently very choppy, so they are difficult to spot both on land and in the sea.

Earlier this week I headed along the beach during a few hours of very low winds and relatively calm seas. I reached the point on the beach where I always stop for my first scan out across the water, and (unusually) it took me less than 10 seconds to see an otter out fishing. I carefully started moving through the boulders to see if I could get a bit closer. Very soon however it climbed up onto a rock to eat whatever it had caught, so I stopped my approach, knowing that otters rarely allow you to approach them on land.

Distant otterA typical view of one of my local otters on a ‘feeding rock’ that it uses regularly. 

It did not linger for long and was soon out again hunting. Heading quite a long way out, it was quite hard to keep track of as the water was starting to become a little more choppy. I was concealed some distance back on the beach waiting, knowing that if the otter caught anything large it would have to come ashore to eat it, and I would attempt to position myself approximately where I thought it may land.

Five or six times in a row, the otter jumped out of the water to start a dive. I was expecting it to surface with a small fish such as a lumpsucker or flounder, but when it did come up it was immediately clear it had caught something big. A series of large splashes and the otter’s tail thrashing about got my heart racing as I struggled to see what was happening. Then I saw the outline of a large bird with its beak open pressed against the otter’s chest, and through my lens I was amazed to see that it looked like a razorbill or guillemot.

The otter repeatedly pushed the bird under, probably attempting to drown it, whilst making towards the shore as quickly as it could with such a large catch. My heart was in my mouth as I realised it was swimming straight towards my point on the beach, and for a moment I thought I was about to get my best-ever wildlife photographs. Then, and it was hard to see exactly what happened, the otter somehow lost the razorbill. I’m sure it must have killed it as it never re-surfaced, but despite the otter spending some time underwater, when it re-emerged it was without the bird and it started hunting yet again.

I’ve seen many different predators catching their prey on countless occasions but this was one of the most memorable. Otters are highly resourceful mammals with a large range of prey, yet before this I’d never seen one catch anything but fish, crabs or eels.

Fishing otterOut hunting in the Inner Moray Firth. With much colder temperatures over the past 2 weeks, the otters have been spending more time out feeding.

A few precious dolphin sightings
At this time of year the resident bottlenose dolphins are seen far less frequently in the Inner Firth than in the summer. Without a regular supply of Atlantic salmon to keep them visiting the Chanonry Narrows and the Kessock Channel, most of their time is spent hunting further out in the Firth. At this time of year in particular some of the dolphins can cover huge distances in the search for food, sometimes heading South and East as far as the Yorkshire coastline. Not only do the dolphins visit the Inner Firth less frequently at this time of year, there tends to be a greater swell on the water than in the summer, making it more difficult to spot dorsal fins between the waves.

I’ve spotted small numbers of dolphins in the extreme distance from Rosemarkie Bay a few times in the past couple of months. At this time of year each sighting feels special, even though the dolphins may only just be visible with binoculars. This week however I was treated to a welcome closer encounter.

It was a particularly blustery day on the Eathie coastline, with wet snow falling and the Firth a dark shade of grey. I knew that seeing any otters was unlikely but I was out trying anyway, and I’d stopped for a while to carefully scan the beach and sea for signs of movement. To my delight and surprise the water was parted by the dark bulk of a bottlenose dolphin only a few metres offshore. It is always more exciting when you aren’t expecting it. I was very happy to immediately identify the dolphin as ‘Kesslet’, a female sighted almost daily in the Inner Firth during the summer months. She spent quite a while foraging along this stretch of coast, never more than 200 metres away from me, catching several small fish and occasionally slapping her tail on the water’s surface. It was great to see her again after last seeing her in the Kessock Channel in December.

A visit from 'Kesslet'An unexpected visit from ‘Kesslet’ along the Eathie coast. Regularly seen in the Kessock Channel and at Chanonry Point during the summer, ‘Kesslet’ is presently one of the most well-known and well-loved of the Moray Firth dolphins.

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