Photographing Shetland otters – otter and photographer behaviour

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This is an extract from my dairy when I first moved to Shetland and set about learning about where the best sites were to follow Shetland otters and to understand the behaviour of Shetland otters.   I was interested to see the differences compared to the west coast of Scotland but first I need to explore the coast.

From the dairy:

I had been away from home for the last month and could not wait to get out and look for Shetland otters, and see what they were up to. It was a very windy as I headed out the door but I was not disappointed. First of all I found a mother and cub working their way along the shore, foraging. It was not ideal for photography but it was brilliant for watching, I felt happy to be laid in the damp grass again watching the mother foraging, teaching her offspring to hunt. After 30 minutes or so they headed off across the channel to the other side which was a two to three mile walk for me so I decided to head round the island then back along the shore.

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On reaching ‘otter point’ a named it this as there was always a male otter here every time I came, hence the name, and there he was. He was foraging and catching lots of fish in particular, saithe. I spent 3 hours sat watching him fish and only one opportunity came about for photography as he brought a scorpion fish ashore to eat.

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The wind was strong, into my face blowing along the shore away from the otter, ideal for taking my scent away from the otter and for muffling the sound of the camera. Sometimes they hear the shutter on the camera as you take a picture and will look towards you but as long as you keep still, are well hidden and don’t move or make any sound they will just carry on with what they’re doing. Occasionally they can get very inquisitive. It’s a little frustrating when this happens as they have heard the noise of the shutter and they wonder what it is. Instead of moving off they will come to investigate and several times I have had otters move to within a few inches of me and stand there staring for a few seconds before turning and running into the water (I admit first thing in the morning I am a scary sight). At this point they have actually seen you but not smelt you, if the wind is into your face. If you keep still and do not move you will see a piece of seaweed lift a couple of centimetres, as the otter pushes his nose up into the seaweed to try to smell you, as this is an otters best sense, and to look for movement on the shore. The key is not to move and just sit and wait, this can take several minutes. The otter will move again, you might see some more seaweed lift and then nothing and you think the otter has gone, when actually the otter is still watching just a bit further along the shore. To move at this point will guarantee to spook the otter and you won’t be seeing it again that day. However, if you stay still and be patient the otter thinks nothing is there and will start hunting again, but you have to be patience and it can take a good 10 minutes before the otter feels safe to do so. On this occasion the otter finished eating the lumpsucker and he turned and went back out into the bay looking for another juicy fish to eat. Having intimate knowledge of otter behaviour is crucial when photographing otters, as it allows the photographer to make the right decisions, at the right time to get the image of natural behaviour. It aids in predicting where to position yourself on the shore and what you can and cannot do. The more you know about animal and its behaviour the better chance you have of getting the image you want without disturbing the animal, so by the end of the day the photographer walks away happy and more importantly the otter goes to sleep happy undisturbed.

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Shetland otter, photographing shetland otter, otter ecology, Shetland otter watching, photographing shetland otters, otters in shetland, otter ecology, ecology, Lutra lutra, Eurasian otter, European otter

Richard Shucksmith

Richard's favourite place is Shetland's coast, for it has a wide variety of habitats, species and dramatic seascapes. He studied marine biology and marine ecology which has allowed Richard to develop an understanding of this dynamic environment. His photography has enabled him to visually communicate this passion and understanding of Shetland's wonderful coastal life in particular Shetland otters. Richard’s work has been widely published in magazines, journals, books, newspapers, advertising agencies around the world and has won many awards for his work. In 2011 Richard was overall winner in British Wildlife Photography Awards (BWPA), as well as winning the animal behaviour category in 2014.

Instagram @RichardShuckSmith

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