Thursday, 7 November 2013

Shetland part 1 - tracking Dog Otters

From the first moment that I thought about going to Shetland, I always wanted to see and photograph Otters. That was the main reason for me going. However I also knew that it wouldn't be likely for me to see one close enough to get any decent pictures.
The work of Charlie Hamilton James and Simon King are what attracted me to the Shetland islands. Their stunning documentaries and countless photographs of the famous but elusive Shetland Otters. Most of the footage I had seen was of dog Otters, these are male adult Otters which are a lot more solitary than the females who tend to stay with the cubs. I assumed therefore that I would be more likely to see a Dog Otter than I would be to see a family. 

So the story of how I saw my first ever wild Otter goes as follows.
Me and my dad were studying a map of the island we were staying on to look to see if there were any potential locations to watch Otters. I was looking mainly for sheltered inlets or 'voes' close to fresh water (I'll explain why later). My dad pointed out a place named 'Otterswick' which at first seemed to be to obvious but I thought I'd go and have a look. 

In and around low tide is the best time to watch Otters on Shetland because this is when the kelp beds are out of the water and the Otters can be seen searching for crabs and fish in the shallows.
I arrived at the location around 1 hour before low tide. I begun by slowly walking through the fields which overlooked the rocky beach, looking for any signs of an Otter as if there was one there already I didn't want it to spot me.
I couldn't see anything so I went onto the beach to see if there were any signs and there were. I could see clear Otter prints in the sand which ran for about 30 metres from the river to some rock pools. I followed the tracks and at the end of them was a half eaten Velvet Crab and by the smell I could tell it was still fresh. At that point I turned round to see if there were any other signs of where he had gone from that point and to my amazement I saw a single Otter gracefully sliding into the water from a kelp covered rock, where I had been stood just 2 minutes before. 
At that point I was in such shock that I couldn't physically move my hand to lift the camera up but instinct told me to drop to the floor to avoid being spotted, so I did and smashed my shins on the way down. My heart was beating at double speed and I lifted up my camera and begun firing shots, even though the Otter was around 50 metres away from me so they were nothing special. Luckily he did not spot me or catch my sent because I was down wind at the time.

Bad quality but I didn't care as I was watching a real life, wild Otter...

The Otter quickly dived under the water and surfaced again around 50 metres from the shoreline. He would repeatedly dive under the water and on most occasions surface with a fish which is pretty incredible. He would be under water for around 30 seconds at a time which was the time that I would move to get a better view, so as he came up I would drop down into the rocky shore and get wet because I wouldn't look where I was putting my foot. I spent about 10 minutes running and lying down to get a better view but he was always too far out at sea for me to be able to take good photos.

I spent around half an hour watching him hunting in the kelp beds which was such a privilege for me. I had hoped to see Otters on my visit, maybe get some photos but I didn't think that I would watch a Dog Otter hunting. 

After half an hour he begun to head towards the rocks on the other side of the wick. I looked over and could see that there was a field above the rocks that he was heading for so I slowly and carefully made my way over. I made sure that I was still down mind and out of sight and started walking through the field to the point that I saw the Otter get out of the water.
To my amazement, about 10 metres below me, the Otter was out of the water cleaning his fur. *Otters need to wash after every hunt to maintain the waterproof properties of their fur, as these are river Otters NOT sea Otters*. I then had a tricky decision to make... I was so close to the Otter and the area was so calm that if I were to take any photos, the Otter would be spooked by the sound of the shutter. So I decided not to take photos and enjoy the moment for as long as I could. The lighting was poor and my lens was misting up anyway so......
When the Otter finally stopped cleaning he headed under a rock which was about 30 metres away where I was able to take this amazing photo - wildlife photographer of the year maybe?

Yep... that is an Otters tail...

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