Almost a month ago, I decided I would go off in search of otters; while we have a number of otters close to home, there are countless photos of them on the piers from countless photographers (myself very much included), and I was hoping for something a little more... wild. To my delight, I discovered Loch Visions' workshops down in Argyll, targeted specifically at those wishing to learn the fieldcraft for these amazing animals. I immediately booked myself a day, which as my luck would have it, ended up being one of the only days in poor Philip's successful career of workshops where there was an absolute no show - 8 hours of hiking, driving, scanning the horizons, and not a single otter to show for it. Thankfully, he invited me along again to join in a longer 3-day workshop, in the hopes of getting that elusive mustelid in view of my lens.
The first day was a late start at 11am; arriving at the meet-up point I soon discovered that this time, unlike the last, I would not be alone. 3 other photographers were in this group for the next three days. After brief introductions and an overview from Philip of what we would be doing, why, and how to do it, we set off. We trudged up and down the coast like soldiers armed with cameras, our gazes following Philip's binoculars whenever he stopped for a scan, in hopes of seeing otters in the water. At the mid-point of the day, luck seemed to strike us; swimming close to the shore at a leisurely pace, a couple hundred metres away, was a very strong-looking dog otter. We got our first taste of fieldcraft then as we tracked him down the coast, only moving when he was underwater, staying low and still as much as possible to avoid detection. Thankfully for us, the wind was blowing our scents onto the hillside behind us, so if we moved quickly and gracefully, we had every chance of catching up a little with him to get some shots. Well, that was the plan at least...
During a spirited dash through some slippery wrack and over slimy rocks, I managed to lose my footing. In my attempt to save my camera, raising it above shoulder height, my knee took the blow. I waved it off like a silly mistake and allowed the adrenaline of the chase to carry me forward and catch up with the group. We followed the otter until he came to land, snuggling into the rocks and masking our shapes so as to remain hidden. He left a spraint on the shore before dashing off again, clearly intent on going somewhere, fishing as he went. As we climbed up the hill to follow at height around the peninsula, not so rushed this time, the emotion of the experience subsided. But with the loss of endorphins came a shooting pain in my knee. Like the little old granny I seem to be turning into, I hobbled to catch up with the group, apologising that my previous fall was slowing me down and making the rough ground a bit of an arduous task. Philip led me to a vantage point to watch from while they continued the run around the peninsula, but unfortunately, neither I nor them got close to the otter again, as he drifted off into the deeper waters off the point. We all headed home not too long after that, and I spent a night trying to keep my knee still; a gnarly bruise had already formed, and the muscles around it were still twitchy and sore. It was looking like a bit of a rough start, but little did any of us know, that Saturday would make all our trials worthwhile.
It was a glorious start to the day; after a smidgen of rain in the morning, the skies cleared and the wind calmed down, producing a stellar outlook that could very well have been in summer. For photography, such conditions aren't exactly perfect, but part of this workshop was learning how to deal with that too. We gathered for an earlier start at 7am, and by half past, were back to marching the coast. Thankfully, a night of rest had helped my knee, but I decided to err on the side of caution by taking things a bit slower, just in case. By 11am, things were looking quiet on the otter front; we had scanned every territory - including one on the other side of the bay, squeezing into Philip's car to scoot round as fast as possible on a sighting he'd got first thing through the binos, but by our arrival the otter had gone. There were plenty of n-otters about, like cormorants moving like diving otters, rocks with shiny patterns that looked like sleeping otters, and sounds and splashes that were almost everything but otters! Before we took a break at noon, we decided on one last sweep of the territories around the jetty - "mum and cub's territory", as it was referred to. We reached the end of the line, but Philip signaled us to stay low, pointing across the bay to a small, brown fluffball. At this distance, one could be forgiven for thinking what they'd seen was another patch of seaweed, but with the fur drying and beginning to stand on end like spikes on a hedgehog, there was no denying that what we were seeing was a snoozing otter.
We hurried around the head of the bay to the spit where the otter was resting. Slowly, keeping low again, we scooted our way down the channel of water separating the spit from the main stretch of land. At one point, we were near lying on the seaweed to keep a low profile, wriggling along until Philip gave us another signal to stop; he pointed, up and ahead, where another otter was sleeping on a shallow ledge just above. One to our left and one just ahead, we were spoiled for choice, and immediately got to snapping. At his absolute leisure, the otter on our left began to wake, stretching and writhing on the seaweed with a series of wide yawns. It was incredible to be so close, yet so invisible to this fascinating little beast, as he went about his day without a care for the five of us nearby. He turned his head to us, showing a light cream "milk mustache" around his upper lip, bright white teeth, and a completely black, unblemished nose; this otter was clearly young, and most likely the cub of the otter on the ledge. He slipped into the water nearby almost silently, as the otter on the ledge began to stir. If we were unsure about the identification, the young otter soon have us further reason to be confident in it, as he swam around the bay and up under the ledge where his mother was lying; the squeaks and chirps he made all the way were enough to catch not just our attention, but hers as well. She perked up for his arrival to her spot, and surprised us all by allowing him to suckle! Philip seemed somewhat shocked by this, stating the cub had to be at least 18 months old. Our cub was clearly a mama's boy! The pair soon departed however, allowing us a moment to breathe as we watched them swim all the way back to the jetty, clambering up to a crack in the rocks to drink, before disappearing over the hill and out of sight. We started to make our way back to the road, brimming with excitement at what we had just experienced.
Whether it was excitement, the sea air, or the 5 hours of clambering around the coast, I couldn't tell, but my mouth was so obscenely dry it was beginning to irk me. As we meandered up the road back to where we had all parked, I was dreaming about a sip of delicious Irn Bru, so when Philip suggested a brief break I was over the moon. We discussed our latest encounter over lunch, and within half an hour, we were pacing the shores again. As we came back round to the bay where we had left mum and cub... "Otter, there! Sleeping on the rock!" We gathered ourselves again to slip and slide our way onto the very edge of the shore, about 10m away from the island this otter was snoozing on. He had not seen or heard us, so when he started to wake, he was very relaxed. In fact, the only thing that actually caught his attention at all was the tide! Waves crashed into the sinking island with increasing force, covering the otter in spray; every time it happened the otter would move to a dry spot and curl up again. He was absolutely adamant that he was having a nap, here and now, and no force of nature or gaggle of invisible, giggling photographers would stop him. This comedy lasted for two whole hours, until the otter eventually gave in, shaking off the spray and diving into the water with intent, disappearing into the waves. I don't think I've ever identified with an animal more in my life than that tenacious little mustelid!
Day 2 of the workshop came to a gentle end after that; we checked out the rest of the territories with no success, but after the 3 hours or so of uninterrupted otter time, we had had more than enough for the day. Day 3 would be another 7am start, and not nearly half as relaxing as day 2 had been. When we arrived at the meet-up for the final time, the sky was a threatening grey; bands of blue in the distance kept us hopeful, but the 40mph gusts and spatters of rain were already making just standing difficult! We bravely carried on, and back along the coast we went, searching territories once more for any signs of life; unsurprisingly, it was deathly quiet. Hardy pipits parachuted above us, trying so hard to display in the wind, only to be blown completely off course at the height of their flight. White horses crashed along the various islands and shores, daring us to go near. It looked like another possible no-show... until a familiar pink nose caught Philip's attention.
Mother and cub were out again, hunting in the shallows just off of where we were yesterday! We used the cover of the rocks to hide us as we made our way towards them. Undeterred, they continued to fish, catching all sorts in the kelp and eating it nearby. At one point, the pair came out with a good sized catch each, hauling them onto the hill at the other side of the bay; mum did a good job of keeping a hold of hers, but cub lost his grip on his silvery flatfish, which went tumbling back into the sea, much to his dismay. After a bit of upset and prodding mum, the pair were back in the water again, just as a huge squall piled on top of us. The wind was already making it hard enough to hold a camera steady, but now the battering from the rain was making photography damn near impossible. Even the otters, masters of an already very wet environment, didn't seem best pleased. As mum continued to fish and shrug it off, her cub spent most of the storm looking miserable, perching on rocks to eat while squinting through the rain. Just as it seemed like the squall had subsided, the pair dashed off over the hill again, leaving us sodden and otter-less on our rocky perches. We caught up with them again however, just as another squall crept over the horizon. After a second beating from Mother Nature, it seemed like our day was through. As we began to pack up, the gulls who were resting on the beach started calling frantically. Above us was an adult White Tailed Sea Eagle! Unfortunately, my lens was covered in drops of rain, and I couldn't get a shot, but it was marvellous to watch this majestic bird soar casually over us; the perfect end to a wonderful workshop!
Huge thanks to Philip for being an absolute gentleman during the entire 3-day course; our group was very much mixed ability, in fitness and camera ability, and he managed to be there and cater for us all. Despite me being a total klutz, we got some truly fantastic encounters, learned a ton about ecology and fieldcraft, and had some enlightening conversations about conservation (or better yet, restoration) and the future. I've never been more tired after a field trip, but also probably never been more elated as a result; they might not be the best shots in the world, but I know we worked damn hard to get them, and that makes them all the sweeter. Thanks also to Davide, John, and Catherine for their company and conversation; I hope you all got some stellar shots, and it was so great to be in a group with such lovely people - it really helped make the trip!