Otter Spotting Adventures

by Alex Garrick-Wright -

Shetland’s world-famous wildlife makes a trip to the isles a ‘must’ for any wildlife enthusiast. But while it’s easy enough to go for a wander and bump into breathtaking seabird colonies, unique wild flowers and (if you’re lucky) pods of whales, there’s one species that it’s harder to just stumble across: the otter. These shy aquatic mammals live in the voes up and down the isles, hunting for fish in kelp forests under crystal-clear waters. And if you want to find them, you have to know where to look.

Richard Shucksmith knows where to look for otters better than anyone. Since moving to Shetland 12 years ago, Richard has been observing, photographing, tracking and writing about otters. If anyone knows how to find them, it’s him.

Richard was kind enough to invite me along on an otter-spotting trip. We met up on a cold, clear January morning where he was taking Cameron, a keen wildlife photographer from Yorkshire, out for an otter photoshoot. Cameron explained that, while he has been to Shetland a number of times before, this was his first time photographing wildlife; a colleague at the Camera Club in Yorkshire had recommended Richard’s services as a guide for getting that perfect shot of an otter in the wild.

We headed out to a voe in North Mainland, where Richard knew 3 families of otters resided. He requested that the exact location be kept a secret: otters are shy creatures, and in the interests of keeping their habitat undisturbed I agreed not to disclose it. The reason for going to this particular voe on this particular day, Richard said, was due to the south-easterly wind- otters have an incredible sense of smell, and approaching from upwind will tip them off and send them fleeing.

“It’s all about wind direction with otters,” he said. “You want to work into the wind.”

Richard explained that, since the wind direction is the most important factor in getting close to otters, he knows around 15 areas of shore across Shetland, so that no matter what the wind is, he has a choice of locations that will allow him the optimal approach.

We set off in search of our quarry, across a frozen peat bog hugging the shoreline. As we crunched through the crisp, January snow, Richard was continually scanning the shoreline. Spotting the otters before they spotted us would be crucial; Richard said that otters familiarise themselves with the outline of the coast, and if they saw us atop the embankment above the shore they’d make themselves scarce. In order to get close we’d need to see them in good enough time to get down onto the shore, and make ourselves as silent and still as possible.

Before long Richard froze, and raised his binoculars. He’s spotted a lone otter- a male- fishing out in the voe. The usual rule, he said, was that when you find an otter, you stick with it. On this occasion, however, he advised to press on. He knew for a fact that there were 3 families that lived down this voe, and the chances were good of finding a mother with pups. With a high likelihood of getting a closer encounter, we pressed on.

As we trudged through snow-capped heather, leaped icy ditches and skidded across wide ice-sheets where the marsh had frozen solid, Richard was looking for the signs and tells of nearby otters; ‘holts’ where the otters come to wash the salt off their fur, fresh droppings. A hooded crow near the shore caught his eye; scavengers often stay near otters to pick at the fish carcasses left behind after a meal.

We slipped down the embankment and quietly, cautiously, moved forward over the pebbles. Richard signalled to stop and ducked down, indicating towards some rocks maybe 20 metres away. A lone otter was scrambling over the rocks and out into the water to fish; hopefully he would bring his catch ashore for a good photo. Cameron set up his camera and, through the powerful telephoto lens, noticed something staring at us.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing out into the water.

“A seal,” Richard replied. A curious seal, warily observing us. After a moment it left, swimming away, before suddenly there was a flurry of splashing in the water, and the otter fired out of the voe and into the rocks near us. Richard sighed- the seal had collided with the fishing otter and spooked it out the water. It would need a moment to calm down before venturing back; there was little chance of a good photo any time soon. We left the otter preening itself in the safety of the rocks, and continued on to find an otter family.

By this point we had walked some miles already, and the skies were darkening. The Met Office had forecast an unpleasant day, and already the clear morning we had set out on was passing into memory. While the weather was turning, however, so was our luck. Richard ducked down and examined some tracks in the sand- fresh otter tracks. As we looked, a high-pitched chirping sound faintly carried on the wind. Richard hushed- the cry of an otter cub, just ahead.

As quietly as possible, we moved in a close single-file along the beach, trying to avoid even the crunch of rocks underneath out boots, until we spotted a mother and two cubs in the sea. We pressed ourselves into the embankment and waited. Another chirping sound came from our right- Richard pointed to rocks further down at another two otters who, judging from their cries, were “not so friendly”.

As we huddled into the frozen embankment, the sky opened up and the hail fell down onto the beach. The otters, unconcerned, emerged from the water with their catch in tow, settling just a few metres away, directly in front of us. There, peppered by relentless hail, the cubs ate and played, climbing over each other and scampering around the rocks as their mother headed out for a second course.

For maybe half an hour we sat, crouched against the bank as the hail and wind blasted all around us, watching the otters in their natural habitat, Cameron taking a steady stream of photos that would turn many a wildlife enthusiast green with envy. Eventually, the otters went on their way, and we scrambled to our feet. Richard was confident of more otters- and more incredible photographs- to be found further down the voe; I decided to let them continue on without my interference. We parted ways and, as I started on the frosty journey back, the blazing sun emerged from behind the clouds, and lit up the snow-capped hills.

It wasn’t even lunchtime yet, and I’d already seen more otters in the last few hours than in my preceding 7 years of living in Shetland. They’re out there, and they’re incredible. You just have to know where to look.

Richard Shucksmith’s website is http://www.shetlandphototours.co.uk/

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