Notes on eventful Trip to the Isle of Mull

28th July 2013
The Isle of Mull on Scotlands west coast is perhaps my favourite place in the UK. This is why, as a family we often choose it for our summer holiday. I am very lucky that my wife and daughter both love it as well.

As a wildlife photographer Mull offers so much that there is never enough time to take even a fraction in on our weekly visits, and time is further cut into when you consider this is a family holiday and it wouldn’t be right for me to disappear at dawn and return to the cottage at dusk.

On this visit I really wanted to photograph otters. Unlike in most of the UK where otters are now resident in every county, but are largely nocturnal, on the west coast of Scotland otters are seen regularly throughout the day. I had ambitious plans for spending as much time out on the coast as possible without disrupting the family holiday. I knew this would be tiring, not what you really want on a holiday designed to help you recover from the stress of the day job, but it had to be done.

We arrived on Saturday evening and, as the sun was rising at around 5am, I set my alarm for five on Sunday morning. Our cottage is the Old School House at Croggan. This is the last property in croggan and sits on the edge of loch Spelve, a sea loch with tides coming in and out at seven knots. A gravel track runs from the cottage around the coast for about a mile, ending in a secluded bay with grey sand beach. Between the track and the sea is a a small strip of land which varies in depth from a couple of metres to around twenty, this then gives way to the craggy volcanic rock running down into the sea. This was to be my hunting ground for the next week.

On that first morning I actually saw three otters along this route. They were all out in the loch or further round the coast as it opened into the sea. I didn’t get any pictures that first morning but was beginning to observe their behaviour. It became apparent that the otters would dive down for food, typically they were under water for between five and twenty seconds. On coming to the surface they generally ate any crab or fish they had caught without coming into shore, it appeared that they only came in if the prey was too big to manage in the water.

On the second day I only saw one otter. It was actually fishing in the water at the beach which left me very little cover and I had to crawl through the wet sand to get a few images of him when he appeared between hunts. I was also beginning to realise that the otters didn’t stick to one place for long but seemed to move up or down the coast as they hunted. And it appeared that once they were going in one direction they stuck to it and didn’t double back on themselves.

The weather was not as good on the third day with much more cloud around and I had to up the ISO on the camera. Again I bumped into an otter early on and having developed some sort of strategy over the previous days I put it into action. After observing the otters direction of travel I tried to get in front of it. Sounds easy enough, however you have to factor in that you are climbing over jagged hard rock with an expensive camera in one hand, attached to an even more expensive lens. It also involves moving in the fifteen second time period you are confident that the otter is submerged. You therefore have to plan the route as best as you can to enable you to slip behind a rock when the otter comes to the surface.

Early on I made a poor judgement on placing my foot on rock that I assumed was dry only to find it wasn’t and I hit the rock hard. Mercifully managing to get my right elbow down first rather than smashing my camera kit into the rock. Skin will mend! As I have already said the otters would generally eat in the water and it was constantly frustrating to get in front and in position only to have the otter swim past to leave me going through the same process again of running, rock climbing and hitting the deck at fifteen second intervals. This went on for three hours when the otter finally submerged with a crab, a big crab, its legs protruding from his mouth. He immediately began to head for the rocks, on the very peninsular I was hiding on. Unfortunately for me when I glanced over the rocks I was hidden behind I could only see his back as the rest of him was obscured by the rock. You can see some of these images here, they were taken while lying on a rock tipping at 45 degrees into the sea while my left leg and arm where submerged in the water as I attempted to get some sort of shot around the rock. Still I did manage some images but the image I had in my mind eludes me.

This pattern went on for the next few days until the otters and the weather deserted me. I had also discovered that it was difficult to predict where these otters would come to shore. Unlike a bird like a sparrow hawk which may have a favoured plucking post, the otters seemed to head for the closest land to where they had caught their prey.

During the week I also took pictures of a seal, sea eagles (on an organised boat trip) and other coastal bird life. I had wanted to do some landscape work but just never got the time. This means I really have to go back, and for me, that time can’t come soon enough!

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