I will admit that so far on this trip, whilst I have frequently reached for my trusty binoculars, I haven’t picked up my camera quite as much as I would have liked. Now it’s not that there haven’t been any opportunities, there have been plenty, more than plenty infact. It’s just that each time an opportunity has presented itself I’ve found every reason not to take the shot; the lighting was off, or the background was too busy, the subject was too far away, too much contrast, not enough light, blah blah blah. Basically, I was just convinced that I wouldn’t do the creature/location justice, so I didn’t bother. I’ll let you in on a little secret - this is NOT a good approach to a hobby, ever! Practice and mistakes in abundance are the only way to progress. Photos do not take themselves they need to be taken and let’s face it with an abundance of wildlife and Mull practically on our doorstep here in Ardnamurchan I was running out of excuses for keeping the camera in the bag.
Mull is pretty much the mecca for wildlife watching. Seriously, it has it all: otters, white tailed sea eagles, stags, golden eagles, hen harriers, pine martens the list goes on. It’s all there amidst the stunning array of vast and varied habitat, it really is a true cornucopia of wildlife encounters just waiting to happen and I desperately wanted to get in on the action.
After a bit of research and a few Facebook messages I found myself booked onto Andrew Marshall’s Otters and Eagles photography tour of Mull. This is a guy that knows what he’s talking about, he’s even written a book about the best places to photograph wildlife in the U.K. That was it, all excuses were officially used up, I had to get the camera out now. I can’t lie, I was more than a little bit of my comfort zone, I always get nervous around other photographers, worried I don't know enough or I forget my f stops and ISO's. But it was all good I was going to Mull, I was going to see Otters and tick a few things off my bucket list and hopefully be inspired to use my camera again. Amazing.
From Loch Aline we caught the ferry and arrived in Fishnish, a small port tucked in amongst a cluster of conifer trees with a slight Scandinavian feel about it. We were greeted with sunshine but there were a few dark clouds looming, and with Mull’s weather being somewhat unpredictable I was pleased to have packed my waterproofs. Arriving at our first stop a fine drizzle had materialised and hung itself in the air, coating clothes and cameras like spider webs, although at this point I was certainly not paying attention to the weather. We had just spotted the day's first otter.
A little out into the bay with a backdrop of passing ferries an otter was fishing, it was the whip of it’s tail as it dived under the shimmering surface that gave it away. Otters tend to lie flat in the water, and I was surprised at how well they manage this. They are not at all like seals, seals are incredibly buoyant like a cork floating on the surface, no, otters just melt into the water, partly concealed by it and partly consisting of it. Completely at ease with their environment making them seriously difficult to spot.
Andrew had already explained a little bit about how the otters would behave in the water and how we could use that to our advantage to get closer. Once they’ve eaten their smaller catches on the surface they will dive under again to fish before surfacing once more. It’s those dives when the otter is out of sight that give you the chance to move closer. So this is what we did, each time the otter disappeared we scrambled over uneven rocks, coated in coppery coloured seaweed, freezing stock still at the first glimpse of fur breaking the surface. We had managed to get in prime position, squirrelled away behind a rock, my feet were pretty much in a rock pool hidden behind a curtain of channelled wrack, although I couldn’t feel the water seeping in to my ‘waterproof’ boots, I was too transfixed on the spectacle in front of us. This was the closest I had ever been to an otter. The fact that I could see it’s glass bead eyes peering back at me through the lens was just breath taking. It would casually glance in our direction in between chomps of whatever fish it had caught, these looks were less casual for me. I was fascinated, bewitched by the water nymph and 100% hooked on otter spotting.
Ideally, from a photography point of view, we were waiting for the otter to make a big catch such as a crab, one that would be too tricky to eat in the water. This would mean the otter would have to come ashore to devour its prize. Sadly, that didn’t quite happen for us. After putting on a spectacular show it just didn’t resurface, it became one with the water, like ink on the surface it had dispersed until it was water itself. To me that’s just one part of what makes this mustelid so enthralling – their ability to completely vanish.
The next part of our search took us along the shores of Loch Spelve, a tidal loch in south east Mull, we travelled along a single-track road that provided plenty of opportunities to pull over and scan for wildlife. We were slowly losing the advantage of the tide, otters like to hunt with the incoming flow of water, this not only brings the prey in but exposes sections of rocky weed, perfect for hunting and resting up after a fishing session. The tide was slowly swallowing these seaweed mazes but for now plenty of birds were making the most of the exposed shoreline. Heron, curlew and hooded crows picked their way through mud and rocks, all illuminated in beautiful Mull light. The mix of sunshine intertwined with impending rain cloud made for stunning background colours that really showed off the bird’s plumage. Especially the mature herons, who always look so dapper in their grey waistcoats, you’d almost expect them to have a monocle to go with their almost evening attire.
It was from one of these roadside spots that a pale phase buzzard caught our eye; a white shape skimmed the fence line in the distance before coming to rest on a small rocky outcrop surrounded by heather. It was the first truly pale phase buzzard I had seen and although it was some distance away, you still got a sense of a ghostly delicateness it possessed.
The rest of the afternoon, sadly, didn’t bring us any more otters, but Andrew managed to track down other hints that they were in the area, such as old and fresh spraints and interestingly what looked like the skin of a frog. Apparently, otters have a predilection for their frogs skinned. Although the otters evaded us, the time spent exploring hidden corners, wandering through Atlantic Oakwoods, and searching through turquoise blue waters was not time wasted at all. I learnt so much, not just about photography and the technical approach, but about field skills, what to look for, at what time and how to approach your chosen subject and put yourself in the best position possible.
I may not have got any portfolio shots but I’m one step closer to getting them and in the process of learning I can say I had a genuine otter encounter. Not just a passing glimpse as a figure in the water swam passed at a distance, not just a splash of a tail or the silhouette of a sleek being on a far out skerry. No this was an actual encounter, a real tangible experience that I will remember as my first true otter observation. And obviously I now have even less of an excuse not to pick up the camera! Thanks to an exciting day with a knowledgeable guide I am now armed with the inspiration I need to get shooting again.