|European Otter with a crab - Isle of Mull.|
Photographing wildlife can involve a great deal of planning and patience, although on other occasions you can be grabbed suddenly by the unexpected. When I photographed this otter on coast of Mull, it was a chance encounter that I wasn’t expecting, but one that will stay with me for years.
I’ve photographed otters many times before on Mull’s coast, but never on this particular stretch of coast, where the rocky shore is almost constantly beaten with waves that can reach heights of 12-15 foot on a fairly regular basis. But, I’m in the middle of nowhere: I’ve hiked a good way over hills and grasslands to get here and the nearest road is around 5 miles away, so I’m virtually guaranteed not to be disturbed.
So here’s how it happened. I’m standing right on the water’s edge, photographing some of the smaller waves coming to shore, when I hear a peculiar grunting noise in the water – I’ve never heard this sound before – a repeated, short, sharp ‘nguh, nguh, nguh, nguh’. I look up and right in front of me, no more than 12 feet away, a dog otter is in the shallow water, with a crab in its mouth, trying to come ashore – and he’s glaring at me, angry! It’s rare that otters will approach humans, particular in places like this where they are unaccustomed to seeing us around. What surprises me most is that this otter has not only come so close, but is actively drawing my attention towards himself to show my his fury that I’ve invaded his territory.
Immediate I hit the deck, and throw myself to the rocky floor, water swishing around me. I don’t care much about getting wet, but I do care about disturbing a wild animal that is in its home territory here. Perhaps if I lie still, he might think I’ve gone, and come ashore to eat his meal. In truth, however, I’m far too close to the shoreline to avoid being seen – the otter’s eyesight might not have great definition, but he will know every rock of this shoreline piece by piece, and can recognise easily when something is out of place.
The otter swims away and I sit tight, allowing the rhythm of the shoreline return to normal before I get up and move on. The light is fading, the sun is about to set (although on a cloudy day like today, sunset is more a theoretical event of the clock than anything else), and I have a long walk ahead of me to get back home. The opportunity to photograph the otter has gone. Or has it?
I climb back up to a peak in the rocks, a place that affords me a view of a good stretch of shoreline, and see the otter fishing again in another area around the bay. I have to be careful: if I’m going to make an advance, I need to be absolutely certain I’m not going to disturb him for a second time. This means keeping my distance, finding a good position where I’m well hidden, and sticking to it. Slowly and painfully, I work my way between the rocks, high up on the land, moving only when the otter is underwater, until I finally reach a position high up from which I can look down upon the rock where the otter is repeatedly coming to shore. I’m behind a wall of rocks with a small gap in them – if I stay here, I’m as certain as I can be that I won’t be seen. And so once again the otter comes to shore, with a crab, and I start photographing. He flips the top off the crab onto the rock in front of him where it lies in the picture, just about to be swept away by the incoming wave, and tucks into the fresh, succulent meat of the crab. By now the light is very dim, and I’m forced to use slow shutter speeds which blur the water – I’m just hoping there may be the odd moment in the otter’s feeding frenzy where I can catch some sharpness in his eye that is needed for the picture to work.
The otter continues fishing, coming back to the same rock several times with crabs aplenty, one after another, before moving on.
Once again, I stay in place for a good fifteen minutes afterwards, waiting to make sure he’s gone and that I’m not going to disturb him by getting up now and moving. It’s dark now, and time to begin the long walk back across the grasslands, which I’m able to navigate through by following the wild goat tracks. This, coupled with a love of the land, which I know very well, makes certain that I can find my way from sea level up to a local trig point, and back to the house, all in the pitch black without using my torch, map, compass, satnav, or any other modern gadgets.
With over 20 kilos of equipment on my back, it’s a gruelling walk. But navigating through this wild and remote area in the dark, unaided by technology, makes me feel closely in touch with nature, which can be full of such unexpected pleasures.