Isle of Mull

On the search for Otters…

Photographing Otters, or at least trying to, is something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time. In fact, a trip like this has been a couple of years in the making. It was great to finally get to the Isle of Mull, after a 6 hour drive…

On every trip I’ve been fortunate enough to do around the world I’ve come to really appreciate the importance of a guide and local knowledge of the area. So I got in touch with a Andy Howard, a photographer well known in Scotland, who knows the island very well and has a wealth of knowledge on looking for and tracking Otters. I felt in safe hands.

The Isle of Mull is the second largest island in the Inner Hebrides, the largest being Skye, off the west coast of Scotland. It is very popular for naturalists and photographers with good reason… it’s a haven for wildlife and a top photography destination not only in the UK but in the world. Not only does it have a thriving population of Otters (my main reason for visiting), but it’s well known for White Tailed Eagles, Hen Harriers, Short Eared Owls, Basking Sharks, whales and dolphins and migrating birds.

I arrived in Mull late afternoon after taking the ferry from Oban to Craignure and checked in to my base for the week, the Craignure Inn. I was welcomed instantly and never have I stayed in a more friendly place. More on that later…

Oban, before taking the ferry to Mull

Oban

The Isle of Mull has become famous through programmes like BBC Springwatch and Coast. Anyone familiar with BBC Natural History documentaries will know the name Gordon Buchanan - Mull is his home.

As I am from England it is only right to mention a bit about the weather, and I couldn’t have been luckier. While the week started out with everything from cloud, high winds, rain, hail and snow, after a few days it turned into wall to wall sunshine and crystal clear nights. With very little light pollution star gazing here rivals that of when I visited the west coast of Mexico - stunning!

So on the first night in the Craignure Inn I was keen to find out more about Mull and where we would be going to look for Otters. It was on this first night that I heard a rumour about Otter behaviour that was completely new to me - apparently I’d arrived in ‘frogging fortnight’! Otter sightings had been fleeting for the last week or so and the theory is for a couple of weeks a year, around April, many disappear up into the hills to look for and eat frogs. With this news my first week on Mull and the hope of photographing Otters didn’t bode well…

snow capped peaks dominate the distance overlooking Loch Spelve

fortunately I didn’t see any Otters crossing the road, but I hear many are killed this way

I needn’t have worried, we saw at least 6 or 7 Otters every day, with 13 different Otters on the last day being the best count. Still, I hadn’t come to Mull to count Otters; I had come to photograph them and learn more about their behaviour. Andy was a fantastic guide in which to do this. Not only did he know great locations for them but also their behaviour, how to track them and eventually get close without being noticed to photograph them.

The first 3 days proved difficult. While we saw plenty of Otters photographic opportunities were hard to come by. Having said that I did manage to get a couple of photos from my first two sightings on the first day…

my first Otter sighting!

and the second…

Otters are one of the UK’s top predators. They feed mainly on fish, waterbirds, amphibians (damn frogs!) and crustaceans (I was lucky to watch one with a lobster - see further on in this blog). As already mentioned Mull has a very healthy population of Otters, and while we didn’t have much luck for the first few days we saw plenty of evidence of their presence - namely sprainting sights noticeable for their bright green tufts of grass, thanks to the nitrogen in the Otter’s droppings.

They’re voracious with high metabolic rates to keep them warm, so they’re constantly on the hunt for their next meal. We did manage to spot one with a Dogfish catch and were able to get relatively close to watch…

With anywhere new that I visit I like to take photos of the surrounding area, rather than just focusing on the one subject. It helps to build a story of the area and if I’m honest I just enjoy trying different things.

I didn’t have the right camera kit with me for a decent sunset shot of Loch Na Keal as shown below, but I thought it was still worthy of showing.

The real landscape highlight came on my third night, right outside the Craignure Inn… my luck was in as a Aurora alert popped up and sure enough a green glow could be seen from the jetty at Craignure back across towards the mainland. I was mesmerised by the sheer number of stars visible when the sky was clear. Freezing cold I watched the Aurora with awe and after about an hour and a half it died down, so I turned around and photographed Craignure under a star-lit sky… 

Loch Na Keal

Northern Lights from Craignure - incredible to witness!

Craignure at night

What a difference a day makes…

As if the Northern Lights was a good omen, my fortune with the Otters changed dramatically on my fourth day on the island. An early start to be out for sunrise proved to be a great idea. Not long after watching an Otter move along the coastline, backlit with the warming sun casting a golden glow across the Loch, did we have a second Otter in our sights out fishing. We moved into position by a likely spot we hoped the Otter would return with a catch, when all of a sudden another Otter popped up in the seaweed very close to where we were. He was ‘crabbing’, where they move around in the seaweed looking for crabs and small fish, bobbing up regularly with a small prize, and kept moving closer and closer to where we were.

Otters have very poor eyesight, relying mainly on an impeccable sense of smell and amazing hearing. Fortunately we were downwind and remained as still as possible. He came within 5 metres of us which gave a great opportunity for full frame head shots with the rising sun hitting his face. He came so close in fact you could tell he realised something unusual was watching him and we could hear him smell the air. He continued on his hunt for food and we slipped away. An amazing moment on what would turn out to be an incredible day…

Otter at dawn

a very close encounter, so close I could hear it sniffing me out!

I was buzzing after this and thought my luck had finally come through, content that if I didn’t see anything more for the day or the week I’d go home happy. Things only got better…

Travelling between different Lochs on the island often gave great opportunities for other wildlife and landscapes. Having said that, I don’t think the Buzzard below was too happy with me being around! He flew off soon after this photo was taken.

We got to play ‘spot the Otter’ with one hiding in rocks covered in seaweed. The Otter had actually been spooked by a boat fishing for mussels so went into hiding. It wasn’t long before he was on his way along the Loch again.

Apparently the view the panorama shows below is a famous viewpoint on the island, but I can’t find the name of it. Stunning nonetheless, especially with the snow capped peaks after a cold night…

somehow I don’t think this Buzzard wanted me around…!

spot the Otter…

Having watched the young Otter foraging in the seaweed during the early morning, we carried on in our search for more sightings.  By mid-morning we had reached Loch Na Keal; a beautiful place with Ben More as a backdrop. Driving along I spotted movement in a patch of seaweed right on the shore of the Loch. A quick check with the binoculars showed it to be two very young Otter cubs, estimated at 2/3 months old and just out of the holt, preening and resting while mum was out fishing.

Soon mum returned and the family of three swam out into the water. The cubs were so young their thick fur made them buoyant in the water, and they bobbed around like corks. Desperate to keep up with mum they made frequent high pitched squeaks making them easy to spot.

While they were out fishing we decided to get into position hoping they would come back to the same patch of seaweed. They moved a good 100m/150m further down the Loch but patience paid off and sure enough they started making their way right back to where we were. What followed I could only have dreamt of witnessing… They cuddled up together right in front of us, showing how strong the bond is between the mother and their young. They stayed there for a good 10/15mins or so before moving a little further along to rest together. We let them go and watched from a distance…

one of the best wildlife experiences I’ve had to date…

a dream shot of mother and two cubs snug together…

After a while we moved further down the Loch and once again fortune was in our favour. The three Otters came in our direction. As the two cubs were young they needed regular breaks while mum constantly brought back snacks for them. When she brought a small fish back the two cubs usually then had a squabble, fighting over food…

two young cubs squabble over a fish brought back by mum

a tender moment between mum and two cubs

They came quite close and the two cubs were left once again to rest. It was fantastic to watch them together, especially when they settled down to have a snooze, oblivious to us nearby…

fish snack

two Otters cubs about to sleep for a while…

The Isle of Mull is a haven for bird life and in particular birds of prey. Safe from persecution they thrive here with a plentiful food source. While I did get a glimpse of the island’s famous bird life, White Tailed Eagles and Golden Eagles, as they soared high up in the sky, I did manage a few close encounters with Buzzards often seen at the side of the road…

Whooper Swans fly over Loch Spelve

a Buzzard seen by the side of the road near Loch Scridain

I’ve never seen such tame Buzzards as in Mull

and another!

Not only is there an abundance of wildlife but the landscapes are spectacular. Driving from Loch Scridain to Loch Na Keal brings you past Balmeanach, a stunning view of sheer cliffs meeting the coastline.

A couple of close friends, Sally and Hannah, came to visit near the end of my trip and so we went on an explore around the island. This led us to the island of Iona. It is a tiny island off the southwest coast of Mull. It is only 1.5 miles wide by 3 miles long, with a population of roughly 120 permanent residents. We didn’t have much time to spend there, but I managed to grab a panorama of the island.

Near the end of my trip, on the second to last day in fact, we had a beautiful sunset over Loch Don. I had moved to stay in a B&B with the sunset view you can see below from my bedroom window. It was a tranquil place off the main road. With the glorious weather we were having we managed to squeeze in kayaking on the Loch without even a whisper of wind, the only ripples caused by the paddles of our kayaks…

Balmeanach - an impressive view

Iona panorama

sunset over Loch Don

So the last full day on Mull came - and what a way to finish…

I can’t take credit for spotting the Otter below, as Hannah had spotted it out fishing in Loch Na Keal. We quickly pulled the car over and watched from the roadside. All of a sudden we noticed he was swimming for our direction, with a lobster in his mouth! I quickly got my camera together and we moved as quickly and silently as possible to get a decent vantage point where we could hide in the rocks.

We managed to get to a great spot to watch him crack open the lobster and chew away, such an amazing sight! As I’ve not worked with Otters before I hadn’t realised watching an Otter with a lobster for a catch is apparently quite rare, so once again our luck came in!

late lunch lobster…

Hard earned fish and chips (!) in Tobermory to finish off what had been an amazing last day. In fact, my week on Mull, with it’s highs and frustrations, has to go down as one of the best wildlife experiences I’ve had. They don’t say working with Otters is challenging for nothing, and I felt perseverance had paid off.

Tobermory in the late afternoon sun

I said at the beginning of the blog that I would mention about the welcome I received when on Mull…

I never been to a more friendly place. From the second I stepped into the Craignure Inn to when I left, the locals and the staff at the pub made me feel instantly at home. I had a great evening on the first night with Simon running the bar reminiscing over music and was tempted with lots of different Scottish whiskeys from Amy who co-ran the place. A massive thanks to everyone at the Craignure Inn and one of the locals, Lorne, we got to know who was a great laugh and incredibly friendly.

As you can see from the photos below, it was a blast!

two of my closest friends, Sally and Hannah, came to join to explore Mull

getting to know the locals…

Thanks very much for reading the blog, as always any comments are always appreciated…

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