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.
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.
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.
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.
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!