Wildlife photography is full of highs and lows, and I’m not talking about the weather, although on my recent trip to the Isle of Mull I did experience quite a mix of different weathers in the space of a few days. Emotionally you can feel quite down and empty when for hours…even days you see nothing, but then, when it all comes together, you are rewarded with a tremendous high feeling that makes it all worthwhile.
Trying to photograph otters on Mull is an example. I have seen many times otters in rivers but wanted to capture otters that used the sea and lochs to fish. Mull is one of the best locations to see these amazing and beautiful creatures. I had done my research, asking a few contacts from Flickr as to near enough locations. I had read a very interesting article by Elliot Neep (http://www.neepimages.com) about his exploits on Mull and what he had learnt from his personal encounters with these animals.
I had decided to wild camp alongside the sea lochs to give me maximum time at these locations. An early start is crucial to see these elusive creatures. I was out with binoculars every morning by 6am as the water was calm and the light made it easier to see them swimming. They catch their prey by diving and then if it’s too big to eat at sea, they will bring it a shore and devour the fish on the rocks. They usually make to the nearest peninsula.
Anyway the first day I didn’t see any otters at all. I had spent a solid 15 hours scanning the coastline but nothing. The next day around about 9am I did see one far out in the loch. I began to follow it as it plunged down and would appear with something small. I watched it do this for some time and then it began to swim to some rocks along the coast. These where still quite a distance but with my 300mm combined with a 1.4 converter I thought I might at least get something.
I was getting desperate at this stage. I had about 3 minutes with this otter and the sun even came out to make him glow! I was quite happy with what I had but I knew I would need to get closer next time. That afternoon the rain came in and so this made visibility quite difficult. That night lying in my tent, I was glad I had at least seen a sea otter.
The next morning was a damp start. Nothing like wild camping in the rain! but the light and scenery on Mull through the sunshine and showers was truly spectacular. Thursday morning became afternoon and the weather improved, but still no other sightings. This is when the “lows” set in. You begin to think so negative. “Why did I bother at all” “Should of done this…should of gone there.” “What a waste of time”. I was booked on the 11am ferry in the morning but was debating to spare myself another windy and soggy night in the tent, and make for the last ferry off Mull that night. I got the weather for the next day that said it was to be dry but cloudy, so I decided to stay another night as something in my mind kept telling me it will all come together and happen soon.
I awoke the next morning and the rain; forecast that night hadn’t arrived. Yet! Again at 6am I was out and about. Nothing at all, just the same as the previous mornings. I looked at my watch and I knew I had only another hour in this place before making my way to the ferry. I just sat on a rock, feeling quite dejected. Then all of a sudden, I saw movement through the binoculars. A sea otter was about 500m away. The tide was out so he was some distance. I looked at what was before me and the otter and a lot of rocks, seaweed, soft sand, but I had nothing to lose. I grabbed my camera and I could feel the excitement rushing through me. I had been waiting for this moment for 3 days now. I had prepared my movements many times but now I was so excited I was trying to keep myself calm. I planned my route based on wind direction and lowest points. I could see the otter on the rocks rolling in the seaweed. I came within 100m of him and had to stop to calm down, gain composure, and relax. All kind of questions I was asking myself. Should I shoot now? Would he hear me and swim off? Are my camera settings correct? I kept stopping having a look at her through the binoculars and she was still happily playing in the seaweed. I had managed to cover quite a bit of ground and came within 20m of her, so this point I took my first shots. Immediately she looked up straight at me. Otters have amazing hearing and sense of smell. I was soaked lying on the rocks and seaweed, but just kept motionless. She started to preen her pelt again and ignored me. I took a few other shots and again she looked at me for a few seconds but then carried on. She knew I was there, so I inched a little closer. I was holding the camera all this time, trying to keep it dry, but not having a rock to rest it on. About 10m closer to the otter was a perfect rock to place the lens on. If I could make it there I would have, not only a closer view but something to keep the lens steady. I kept checking my settings, thinking through ISO, shutter speed, DOF & aperture. Hoping I was keeping the lens steady enough with all this excitement. After about 10 minutes of crawling I made it to the rock. What a relief to place it on the rock and fire off a few shots. I couldn’t believe she knew I was there but was quite happy preening herself. I spent the next 20 minutes with her just watching her; it was as though she was posing for a photo shoot! Showing me her claws, her teeth and how neat and clean her pelt looked. I nearly forgot the time if it hadn’t been for the rain that came in from the West. I knew I had to leave for the ferry; I had to crawl away slightly. Then I stood up and she saw me and jumped into the loch never to be seen again.
That has got to be the most amazing encounter with wildlife I have ever experienced. Maybe it was the long 3 day wait. Maybe it was the fact I hadn’t given up and gone home, maybe because ironically it all happened in the last hour of my time on Mull!
To see more images of otters click here.