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Otters - A responsible approach - Shetland Nature Diaries

by Deborah Leggate -

Regular nature diaries by local naturalist, wildlife photographer and holiday provider, Brydon Thomason of Shetland Nature

Otters are without doubt one of Shetland's star attractions. Many visitors come here for the sole purpose of an encounter with these marvellously captivating creatures. Although any encounter is highly valued, it is a more complex situation for wildlife photographers. Finding a reliable site and then knowing how and when Otters use it and most importantly how you can get close enough to photograph and not cause disturbance is very difficult without experience.

Studying and photographing Otters and their behaviour has become my main passion and indeed motivation, both as a naturalist and photographer. For me, it is a privilege to work as a guide throughout the year communicating my passion for Otters. Sharing the joy of each and every encounter is a truly emotive and rewarding experience. However, never yet to have had a client leave disappointed (having failed to see Otters) is no easy task and often means working under an enormous amount of pressure.

Without experience, Otters are notoriously difficult to approach and sensitive to disturbance and can often seem all but impossible to find. Knowing which sensesthey use (mainly smell and hearing) to avoid potential danger and in turn how to use this to your advantage is the key for enjoyable encounters and most important of all, to avoid disturbing them.

The main considerations should always be; avoid walking a shoreline with the wind on your back, your scent will carry on ahead of you; keep as quiet as possible, voices will carry; wear earth coloured clothing (avoid bright colours); crouch down or lye as flat as possible when observing to try to avoid your silhouette breaking the skyline.

These of course apply to any observer but for anyone seeking encounters just that little bit closer, such as photographers, the above factors are truly imperative. Without experience, it is no easy task to approach Otters and one that is advised against if there is any possibility of disturbance.

For many photographers the desire to capture an image is more important than potentially upsetting the animal's daily routine. This goes totally against everything I stand for and not just for otters. Capturing unique and often intimate images of their behaviour requires experience, knowledge, respect and patience (often beyond belief!). It is a delight to walk away from an encounter with great images but to do so knowing that the animals never even knew you were there is enormously fulfilling.

There are so many encounters where I have seen the perfect portrait poised or a behavioural shot right in front of me, which I have waited years to capture but I daren't move or take the shot for fear of the Otters knowing my presence. One such encounter happened last year, a mother carrying her three infant cubs (just two months old) one by one to a new holt. This is a very intimate and fragile process that few witness let alone photograph. However from where I lay watching, at only one point could I photograph her on each trip with a cub, but to do so there was a possibility she would hear the camera shutter so in turn would have undoubtedly scarpered and quite possibly abandoned her cub- no image is worth risking that, no matter how unique a shot. I might wait years for another such unique and rare photographic opportunity but that is just how it goes if you understand Otters and their sensitivities.

My advice to anyone hoping to photograph Otters is to always put them first. It must always be remembered after all that they are protected by law under TheWildlife and Countryside Act (and listed as a schedule 1 species). If you are lucky enough to find an active location or have information on a site I would advise not visiting day after day. This can be very distressing and disruptive for an Otter and particularly a mother with cubs if they are aware of their observers. Be patient, be considerate- be responsible.

Bye for now...
Brydon Thomason

About Brydon Thomason

Brydon runs a specialist wildlife guiding service that focuses on all aspects of Shetlands exhilarating natural history for individuals, couples or small groups (maximum of 6), specialising in: otter watching, bird watching, wild flowers, boat trips and much more. Read more about these trips at

Having lived in the Shetland all his life, Brydon is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable naturalists in the isles. He welcomes any questions or comments on the monthly nature diary and should you require any information on any aspect of Shetland's natural history please contact Brydon

View Brydons otter watching blog by visiting

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