The European Otter (Lutra lutra) is one of Britain’s most popular, charismatic and yet extremely elusive mammals. A member of the mustelid family they spend the majority of daylight hours fast asleep in their Holts and then begin to hunt as dusk approaches. That is of course unless you are talking about coastal otters.
The behaviour of Otters throughout Great Britain varies widely, the majority of Otters found or rivers or estuaries tend to completely nocturnal only appearing in the late evening and disappearing before first light. However Coastal Otters such as those found on the west coast of Scotland tend to be diurnal hunting in accordance with the tide.
With the Otters of mull i have found particular otters tend to have a set routine, if you see them at high tide one day they are likely to be very near that same location the next day at high tide.
Where can I see otters during the day?
There are several places in the UK it is possible to see Otters active during the day light hours, primarily these locations are in Scotland although there are a few locations throughout England where you stand a chance of seeing Otters during the day.
The most consistent locations as far as I am aware are the Isle of Mull (Inner Hebrides) and the Isle of Shetland.
The location I have always used for otters is the Isle of Mull, and this is the location I will focus upon throughout the rest of this guide.
If it is not of great concern to you that the otters are wild and you are just after a nice photograph, there are several location throughout the UK that provide excellent photographic opportunities (or just viewing). The top of this list has to be the British Wildlife centre in Surrey, this is a fantastic location used by various professionals and TV crews over the years, visitors get an excellent chance to photograph otters or even better they offer a variety of photography days that allow you to enter the enclosure for a real close up encounter.
The Isle of Mull Locations
While in my opinion the Otters on Mull are very easy to spot, the amount of times I speak to people visiting the island, who haven’t seen a glimpse of an Otter nor know where to begin to look continues to surprise me!
On Mull the key locations I use are as follows:
Like with many species once you have your eye in it suddenly becomes very obvious! Arguably the best time to see otters is at high tide (Tide Times) when the water is right up closer to the road. I tend to drive slowly along the shore of Loch Scridain scanning from the shore to about 30-40 metres out and wait to see any sort of shape or movement on the water.
It’s far easier to spot otters swimming on a calm day when the water is still, unfortunately as you will know the weather rarely does us any favours so you have to work with what you're given.
You will find whilst on mull there will be a fair few tourists (season dependant) and wildlife enthusiasts also looking for otters as well as the local tour guides, it always pays to stop and ask anyone pulled over in a known otter spot to see if they are on anything. Its key to bear in mind however if someone has waited patiently and worked hard to get in position that they are not going to be particularly happy if you stumble along and scare their quarry off, I find the majority of people on mull very considerate and I try to treat them with the same respect. There are few things more frustrating than spending an hour getting into a good position only for someone to pull up and trundle down the beach with their monster lens scaring the otter off!
A good way to find the best spots for Otters(and other wildlife) on Mull and to become familiar with the best practice it’s well worth booking a wildlife tour for the beginning of your holiday. There are several different wildlife tours available, I only have experience of one tour Isle of Mull Wildlife and Bird watch Safaris. I have bumped into him in subsequent years whilst photographing Otters so I can assure you he gets in the right place at the right time!
Now to the important bit! There are several techniques I have tried and tested and many more I haven’t, there isn’t one correct way of doing things but walking down the beach straight toward an otter is definitely one way not to do it!
There are two steps the approach I tend to employ once I have spotted an otter:
Observe and Wait
Otters like many animals are creatures of habit, they visit the same spots they follow the same paths and the fish in the same spots. If you watch the same Otter for any length of time you will begin to notice patterns in their behaviour. A good example of this is the image above, this otter was fishing in loch scridain and pretty much every time it caught something it would return to the same rock to eat it. Once you have observed an otter and begun to understand the way they behave you will find it a lot easier to get close without disturbing them.
Once you have established an individual otters pattern of behaviour its fairly easy to predict their movements, as I mentioned above the Otter in the image above was returning the same set of rocks to eat its catch. Once I was aware of this I crept down the beach, moving only when the otter had dived (from my experience I tend to find you have a good 20-30 seconds with each dive although it is important to be alert and watch) and freezing still and low when the otter surfaced. When you do get in to positions it is important to keep a low profile, remain still and most importantly stay quiet (as you will notice with many of my images the otters are very aware of the shutter sound on the camera, even this makes them nervous).
Once in position it’s just a waiting game, you might have to make the odd adjustment to your position here and there but sooner or later if you persevere you will get the close up encounter you are after.
Important things to consider
Hope you enjoyed!