Monday 3 December 2018

Mull Otter Photography Tours - A Tale Of Two Weeks

Much like the old football saying, this year's Mull Otter Photography trip was very much a game of two halves. Favourable tides, bright, dry and breezy conditions made finding and approaching the otters in the first week fairly easy, whereas the second week was almost the polar opposite. Gales, rain, sleet and hail at times, gusts strong enough to blow us over, water spouts on the lochs and low light, rough seas and very treacherous conditions made our job as guides extremely challenging.

But our schedules mean we can only run these tours in late November, so we have to make the best of it regardless, and our clients all left happy.

As usual, Lyndsey kindly spent an evening cooking up some of the meals we would serve to our clients, before freezing them ready to be transported to Mull, this time in my car, as I had spent a fortnight in the Highlands prior to the tours this year. Andy and I travelled down in convoy as far as Fort William, where our paths separated, with me heading on to Mull, and him down to Oban for a book signing event in the branch of Waterstones. He was supposed to join me later that evening, but his ferry was cancelled, and he ended up having to stay over, texting me to say that he was watching an otter from his hotel window, fishing in Oban harbour - perhaps a good omen for the trip!

Last time I went to Mull, I managed to see a white-tailed eagle within a few minutes of the ferry arriving. This time, I watched one flying over the hills near Lochaline, whilst waiting to take the ferry over to Fishnish. Amusingly I spotted Neil McIntyre driving off the ferry after completing his otter tours, though sadly we hadn't time to chat, and after I'd arrived at the farmhouse, unloaded the car, packed the fridge and freezer with everything, I found myself standing staring skywards, admiring the stars visible in such dark skies, plus enjoying the added treat of shooting stars - the Leonid meteor shower was around that night.

With Andy having been on Mull merely a week before the tours, and me holidaying there just over a month before that, we were both well aware of where to locate the otters, and on our "afternoon off" before the clients arrived, we headed out to dust off our cameras. It should have been a full day, but Andy was late arriving. Still, within minutes of meeting up, we were creeping towards a family of otters, and lapped up the sight of two cubs play-fighting, whilst their mother was out fishing nearby.

Grooming, fishing, munching on prey, larking about. It was just the sort of encounter we hoped would present itself to our clients that week, and with the fair weather seemingly set in place, the following morning, we all set off, as usual in two groups, one guide with two clients each.

We sell the tours mainly to photographers, but we do get people coming along just for the experience of seeing these wonderful creatures. That said, when one such guest was offered the chance to use Andy's Canon 7D mk2 with his 100-400mm mk2 lens, she jumped at the chance. This of course involved us setting the camera up for her, but it was then down to her to get the shots, and boy did she ever. At the end of the week, whilst reviewing her images, Andy spotted one that made all our jaws drop - she'd managed to get a shot of two otters raised up, facing each other in a brief spat. Quite possibly the shot of the whole trip! Not bad for someone who had never used a D-SLR before in her life...

With such favourable conditions during the first week, our clients captured images of otters fishing, grooming, play-fighting, fighting for real and of course sleeping. Mostly in decent light, though there are areas of the lochs where the sun simply cannot reach at that time of year, so are always in shade. Personally I like such light, as the otters look fabulous against dark backgrounds.

Each day, we would see perhaps upwards of ten different individuals, which was quite a change from the summer, when we struggled to find any in the hot weather. And one group was fortunate to see four otters together, not once, but twice during their tour. Remarkable given that I have only seen such a group twice before, in all the years I have visited the island. From what I could tell, there were two mothers, presumably siblings, each with a cub. Being friendly to one another, they left their cubs to play in the shallows, while they went out fishing together.

As with much of wildlife photography, there are key elements that need to go your way for a special encounter. Is the breeze in the right direction? Is there decent light available? Will the otter need to bring its catch ashore? Even then, the otter might perhaps catch a fish, bring it ashore but choose to eat it behind a rock, or with its back to you. Or perhaps another otter might arrive, and affect the outcome, which was what happened at the start of one amazing day that week.

Early morning, my two clients and I were watching a young female otter happily fishing near the shore of the loch, bringing her catch on to a small seaweed-covered rock, before grooming and sleeping briefly.

Then from our left, swam in another otter, carrying a fish it had caught. The young female approached and initially we wondered if they knew one another. Seconds later it was apparent that they weren't happy, and a full on fight exploded out of the calm water.

Lots of splashing, squeaking and wrestling, and in the blink of an eye is was over, with the youngster we had been watching retreating away, leaving the other to rue a lost fish, and then also swimming away.

The remainder of the day was spent watching two pairs of otters, both consisting of a mother and cub. We were treated to them fishing, play-fighting, grooming and snoozing. Unlike last year, the cubs were that bit more mature, and definitely more alert, more so than their mothers, so we had to be ultra careful when approaching, and conservative with taking images - otters have fantastic hearing and can be spooked by the sound of the camera's shutter firing.

One moment to treasure from that day came when the mother began to groom her cub. It was lying on its back, stretched out, and she groomed under its chin. As we watched, we noticed that its back leg would twitch, almost as if it were trying to scratch itself. It was hilarious, and it was a job not to laugh out loud at it.

The first tour was over in what felt like no time at all, and the fine weather continued for the day off Andy and I had between it and the second one. Again we found a family of otters to photograph, pretty much right from first light.

After views of the family catching and eating prey, they headed out into the loch, and we had to relocate to watch them. I chose a lofty position on some rocks, whereas Andy dropped down to water-level. A cub caught us pretty much on the hop, bringing in a fish right below me, and started to play with it in a small rock pool. Far too busy with that to notice me watching from above... unlike the dog otter that arrived without warning. He spotted me immediately, and paused as he approached the cub, presumably to steal its catch. That pause was enough for the cub to realise what was going on, and call out to its mother.

It was intriguing to watch the scene unfold. The dog otter was undecided whether to continue towards the cub, for the easy steal, but was obviously wary of me. I couldn't move, as I would have spooked both otters. I looked up, peering around the side of my camera, and saw the mother and other cub, heading towards the shore like a pair of torpedoes.

The dog looked at them, then at me, at the cub, then at the approaching protective mother again, and decided it was wise to leave! Seconds later the cub was joined by its mother and sibling, and could continue eating the fish it had caught, with the dog otter appearing briefly nearby on the shore for a last look back, before vanishing out of sight.

The start of the second tour continued as the first had left off, with good weather and plenty of otter sightings. However, our weather apps on our phones were already flashing warnings of high winds, rain and stormy conditions for the rest of the week, and despite crossing all our fingers and toes, they proved to be right.

Of course when there are dark clouds overhead, the available light each day was dramatically reduced, shortening each day significantly. The choppy water and spray from the waves and winds whipping up the surf, made spotting otters out in the lochs tricky, and in such conditions, the mothers were leaving their cubs on dry land whilst they fished for them.

On one of the days mid-week, we tried to track an otter fishing offshore, but were caught up in a severe squall - winds rushing down the hills created a localised gust that lifted me off my feet, and I was thrown into the back of one client, the other was kneeling on the ground, trying not to also be blown along! Add to that horizontal rain, sleet and at times hail, we watched the water in the lochs and out in the bays get lifted up, sometimes forming spouts, spinning like tornadoes before dissipating once more. It was wild out there!

Late that day, we met up with Andy's group who had been perhaps wisely photographing a pair of otters from their car, and we were gifted the chance to photograph them. As we were already dripping wet from the weather, we crept down to the rocks, and braved the elements to get some images for the day. I chose to test the image stabilisation on the new 100-400mm, coupled with my 7D mk2, and slowed the shutter down to 1/125th or slower, hand-held to make the rain streak. Not an easy thing to do when the wind is trying to rip the camera from your hands.

Of course with such rain falling, the streams leading into the lochs were bursting, and residents were forced out into the open. We enjoyed some remarkable views of a dipper fishing beside the shore one morning, which made a change from the otters.

And high over the hills was a pair of golden eagles, the male displaying to the larger female nearby, by soaring skywards, then going into a steep, stooping dive, skimming the canopy of the woods, before going back up once more. Spectacular to watch, albeit somewhat distant to photograph.

With one of the clients booked on to a ferry mid-afternoon on the final day, I offered to do the drive, as Andy's car is more spacious, and on my return from Craignure, I continued to help look for otters for the remaining group. After spotting a lone otter nearby, Andy then picked up on a mother with two cubs, and they headed down to the shore in the gloom for a final encounter. I stayed back, both to help watch the otters from afar (Andy and I have radios to communicate over) and also to limit the number of folks viewing. The smiles on the clients' faces when they arrived back at the house later spoke volumes. A final encounter that Andy described as beautiful - he was just watching, and at times acting as a support for the clients' lenses!

It was a funny couple of weeks. There were times during the first where I wondered if it was actually late November, given how warm and pleasant it was, and couldn't help but smile to myself at what we were watching. Conversely I questioned my sanity in the second week, when clinging to rocks, being battered by hailstones and struggling to keep the cameras dry, in light levels pushing the ISO way over what would normally be acceptable to use.

But that's otter photography for you. Come rain or shine, they're working their magic out there, and it's always fun to try to capture it on camera...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Just read your blog of Otter tour Pete. Spot on. I remember the challenging weather,so very well described by you!
Despite the "bad light" I have got some great pictures one of which flew on my Flickr site.(Explored)
I have never used such high ISO's but with some careful pp got some good results.
Thank you for your laid back guiding and very nice to have met you!
Best wishes Antony Ward