Dream light and conditions for otter photography on the Isle of Mull.
6.30am, and I’m re-visiting a previous life – driving through Fort William in heavy rain and low cloud and wondering how the forecast could have been so wrong. I think of all the times I’ve given up and returned to my former home in Glencoe, optimism defeated by one of the wettest climates in Europe. It only gets worse the closer I get to Mull, and I find myself cursing this winter and the run of bad luck it seems to have brought me. I drive off the ferry at Fishnish in a low mood, and half-heartedly look for any break in the cloud.
Sometimes I dream about otters, my mind finding peace in their quiet and mysterious ways. It is rare for a day to pass when I don’t think about them, and as a wildlife photographer no other species has such an ability to obsess me. Elusive, beautiful and supremely adapted to their environment, I find them almost uniquely inspiring subjects. My local otters on the Black Isle are a source of frequent joy but also frustration. Although they are always a pleasure to watch at a distance, I’ve managed to get almost no decent images after a year of trying. The area of water they hunt in is usually choppy and they come in to land on a beach covered by large boulders, so they are very difficult to track both in the sea and on land. Dog-walkers cross their area of beach every day and as a result they are particularly shy. I have always had more success photographing otters on the West coast, and although I had been to Mull several times previously, I’d never dedicated an entire trip just to otter photography. Just as I became available last week, a 3 day long weather-window of high pressure was forecast.
It happens just at the right moment – the cloud starts to break just as pessimism was almost winning. I’m surprised at how quickly it breaks. The obvious dawns on me – it was a cloud inversion, a thin layer of murk hiding unbroken sunshine just above. A hen harrier passes overhead and catches some first rays of sunshine, and I feel hope return. I start walking slowly along the shores of my chosen loch, scanning the water and sea-weed for movement. I stop frequently to use the binoculars, but only see birds breaking the surface of the mirror-still water. The cloud has gone entirely now, and the light is the brightest I have seen since October. Two hours pass and no otters yet, but for the first time I think I see movement in the sea-weed. There! Two slender shapes sliding into the water about 200m away. They swim together, hugging the shore.
This otter was one of a pair that fished very close to shore for several hours. Rarely swimming more than 10m away from the beach, they made it very hard for me to stalk them without being noticed.
My pulse rockets, as it does every time I see an otter. For a moment they remind me of a pair of grass snakes swimming in a pond, their long forms parting the wet vegetation that breaks the surface. It takes restraint to keep far back on the beach as I know I need to, and with the silent and warm conditions I’m worried about being noticed. I follow them for a long while as they move along the coast, until one disappears so I focus on keeping track of the remaining one. With each dive I hurry along the beach, trying to get down flat before it re-surfaces. This continues for 2 hours until the otter finally makes for deeper water, but I’m disappointed as it disappears over to the opposite shore of the loch and hauls out for a snooze. Thirty minutes later and it is rapidly approaching my shore again, and starts to fish. My position is good and I know this is it. It surfaces with a fish, just 10 metres from shore, and turns towards a rocky rib sticking out from the beach. I make ‘the dash’ – sprinting those few metres to get in position, and throw myself flat amongst the sea-weed. The otter emerges out of the water into perfect light 4 metres in front of me, and I tremble with excitement. And like every other occasion I’ve seen an otter so close, I am humbled.
After 4 hours of stalking I got in position for this otter to come ashore a few metres away. The light was the brightest I’ve seen since October, so I was painfully aware it would make-or-break my images depending on my position.
Emerging through the bladderwrack.
Hunting for small fish in the shallows.
An otter in its environment – on a different loch on a different day. Five seconds earlier this animal was almost invisible.
This otter was easier to track than the animals I’d followed on the two previous days, but out-witted me sufficiently for me to be facing into the light.
A treat to have bright and calm conditions after weeks of poor weather.