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On the Trail of Otters in Scotland
In search of otters along Scotland’s rugged Ardnamuchan coastline for a new painting.
This summer my family and I travelled to the Ardnamurchan peninsular to look for otters. I love the Scottish countryside: its highlands, islands and coastline team with wildlife – even if it can be a little challenging to get up close.
We set off on a glorious sunny day. In Yorkshire the landscape was scorched brown – there had been only one thunderstorm in the last eight weeks. As we reached the border a bank of dark cloud greeted us. I was so unused to seeing rain clouds at first that I thought it was smoke! But of course this was Scotland where rain is part of the landscape. At first the rain felt refreshing but the novelty soon wore off as I unloaded my eight-foot long trailer in the downpour.
The trailer was packed to the brim with wildlife hides, canoes, bikes and boxes of tools, cameras, and tripods. I had even brought along hollow logs and twisted branches: essential props for my paintings. My mission for this trip was to watch and photograph otters in Loch Sunart. As I was unpacking I spotted an otter from the cottage window. It crossed the bay, its waking drawing a straight line in the surface of the water. As dusk fell a pine marten appeared on rocks at the edge of the garden. This was a promising start!
The first signs of an otters presence
The following morning we piled into our canoes and set off to explore the otter’s territory as a family. My wife was in one canoe with our youngest daughter, Ruby, and I was in the second with Lily, aged 10. Three porpoises popped their heads out of the water right next to my wife’s paddle.
I soon found otter spraint on a rock and a pile of shore crab claws and legs from a velvet swimming crab littering the rocks. They had been freshly caught that morning. From the canoe I examined the deep sweeping bays and rocky shoreline, it was lined with thick impenetrable vegetation. I wondered how I would be able to follow an otter with my camera. The otter could swim across from one shore to another with ease, while I would have to traverse this tricky terrain on foot.
Later that afternoon the water was like glass, reflecting the mountains. I scanned the surface with my binoculars, checking each silver wake that ruffled it. I spotted a grey seal, a school of mackerel, a herring gull, a pod of porpoises in the distance. And then, finally, an otter. I grabbed my camera, tripod, camouflage jacket and binoculars and was just about to set off after it when my wife pointed out that I wouldn’t be able to cross the river that fed the bay.
On the trail of otters
I put on shin-high walking boots. The tide was in and the river had swelled waist deep. I ran inland where it was shallower but flowing faster. It was just a little higher than my boots so I dashed across it, slipping and sliding on the rocks. I wasn’t bothered about falling in but my camera needed to stay dry!
I climbed up a small cliff and into the wood where I was greeted with head-high bracken. I pushed my way through, tripping over boulders as I went and picked up an old red deer track that led me out to the rocky end of the spit of land. Here there was a channel of deep tidal water which cut off the end peninsular making a tidal island just at the point where I had hoped to catch up with the otter.
I stood at the water’s edge frustrated. But, just 15 metres away, I saw the familiar roll of an otter back traveling up the channel. As it went under the water, I dropped to my knees and started setting up my camera and tripod. The otter surfaced before I was ready. I froze, waiting for it to dive again. It was up again in seconds with a crab in its jaw.
Watching otters hunting under the water
It was a large dog otter. It was swimming to shore with a crab in its mouth. Curiously, it bit into the crab and then dropped it. I watched as it caught another and again discarded. It was as though some crabs failed the taste test. The water was crystal clear and I could see the otter as it hunted in the seaweed. A chain of bubbles traced its movements as it twisted and turned as fluid as the water itself. Suddenly it splashed out of the water in front of me with another crab in its mouth. This one was still alive and its pincers were grasping at the otter’s whiskers!
The otter went up to a rock and bit down hard on the crab to crush it. Again it dropped its meal, as it had previously. Was this a particularly fussy otter? But then this time it shook the water from its head, sending droplets spinning, picked up the crab again and began to eat it. Soon the otter was off hunting again, shifting effortlessly from land to water, as it criss-crossed the channel. As it swam only its eyes, ears and nostrils were above water. It was fascinating to see how this animal has adapted to life in the water. Its senses are all positioned at the same level so that it can hear, see and smell whilst the rest of it is submerged. The artist in me noticed that you could have drawn a line between them.
It caught another crab and emerged just 10 metres of where I was standing. Its large webbed paws, trimmed with gleaming white claws, were splayed on a rock and its luscious thick coat dripped with sea water. I noticed a prominent, pale scar on its nose. As it finished its snack, it paused and looked straight down my lens at me offering a perfect pose for a painting. It heard the camera click, but couldn’t see me crouched among the boulders. I was hidden in head to toe camouflage, including a jacket, balaclava and matching gloves.
Scotland’s elusive wild otters
After an otter has had a good feed they will often begin grooming, but it only paused for a few minutes then slipped back into the water, looking over its shoulder as it headed round the island and out of sight. I waited half an hour and was just about to give up when it reappeared on the other side of the island and headed back across the bay where I had first spotted it.
As I retraced my steps I was surprised at how demanding my initial scramble across the bay had been. I paused to scan the landscape with my binoculars and spotted the otter hauled up on a patch of seaweed in the evening sunlight, scratching and grooming. I broke into a run. The bracken I had run through now seemed impenetrable, the cliff I had climbed felt much steeper and when I re-crossed the river I got a lot wetter.
When I eventually reached the spot the otter had been, as is so often with wildlife watching, it had gone. I decided to call it a day, but that evening, just as I sat down to eat my tea I spotted another otter, a smaller female this time, out of the cottage window and I couldn’t resist the urge to set off to the loch again!
It was 10 days before I finally caught up with this female and was delighted to discover she had a cub with her. Watch the video below of the cub, on the left, as she suckled. Click here to read about how I watched mother and cub interacting and to see my photographs of this elusive pair.
I tracked down this otter family on foot, but after my return I heard of a wildlife hide where you are supposed to be able to spot otters and seals on Loch Sunart. If you are visiting the reason you may want to check out: Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide. I stayed in Birch Cottage, owned by Shoreline Cottages and recommend this as it has beautiful views over Loch Sunart. In fact this is the second time I have stayed here. Click here to read about my first visit when I actually stood over an otter holt.
Inspired by Watching Otters
Below are the paintings this trip inspired, follow this link too to see all my paintings of otters.
See more otter paintings here:
Read about how I watched a mother otter with her cub a week later:
Author: Robert E Fuller