An encounter with an otter in the wild is a magical experience. Helen Webster takes a look at the best places to spot otters, how to boost your chances of a sighting, and tips to avoid disturbing these amazing creatures.
Whilst the European otter (lutra lutra) is at home in both fresh and salt water habitats, they are most easily seen along our coastlines – a calm sea often presents the best opportunities to start looking.
Where? You could spot otters almost anywhere on the Scottish coast. Although the west coast, Mull, Skye, the Outer Hebrides and Shetland have the largest otter populations, I have spotted them off the coast of the Black Isle and Galloway and inland on the River Spey near Grantown. I’ve watched them on the fringes of Inverness, and have seen some fabulous photographs of otters in the River Ness taken from the road bridge in the heart of the city, next to a Chinese buffet restaurant.
Local knowledge is often invaluable; ask around if you are on holiday in the area or – for the best chance of a good sighting – consider hiring a wildlife guide.
Tell-tale signs that otters live in an area include small piles of otter spraint around the coast. This nutrient-rich dung can have a strong smell when fresh; it is then dark and slimy-looking but you are more likely to see it dried out to resemble a pile of tiny fish bones and shell often on a tuft or mound of brighter green grass fertilised by the spraint. Otters repeatedly use the same spots as a way of marking their territory.
Otters also need access to freshwater to keep their coats in good condition so good places to spot them are estuary mouths, or places where they can come inland and wash in small streams and pools. Sometimes regular use by an otter’s low slung body forms a small path through these areas that offer another clue to their presence.
Sadly otters have very little road sense and as they can range for up to 3 miles from the water, with large territories, they can end up as casualties on the tarmac. Seeing a dead otter by the side of the road is very sad, but it does indicate that that area is an otter habitat and there may be others living nearby. Take particular care when driving at night or in low light.
When? Otters are most active around dawn and dusk, at night, and in the hours around low tide as they are more likely to spend the high tide hours in their holts (burrows, usually inland, where they rest and raise their kits). Planning coastal walks around these timings can maximise your chances, but otters need to feed regularly so it’s always worth keeping an eye out. Otters that live purely in freshwater are more likely to only be active around dawn or dusk.
Otters can be spotted year round and are active in stormy weather, but a calm sea provides the best opportunity for scanning the surface to spot one swimming. They are often incredibly well camouflaged when ashore so once you’ve spotted one in the water it’s useful to try and keep your eye on it.
Otters need to spend long periods of time fishing and are territorial. They also need access to freshwater to keep their coats in good condition and to be able to get to their holts which can often be some distance inland for coastal otters. For these reasons it is a good idea not to watch the same otter for a prolonged period of time unless you are sure it is unaware of your presence and is not changing its behaviour because you are there – you may be blocking access to fresh water or its holt.
Go equipped with binoculars, warm, waterproof and quiet clothing preferably in muted colours. Otters have reasonable eyesight and good hearing, together with an excellent sense of smell. Try and stay below the horizon – as your outline against the sky will make you easily recognisable; sit or lie down if possible, keeping quiet. Whilst otters spend a lot of time on the shore, eating, grooming, resting and playing, they usually choose secluded spots with lots of kelp and can be incredibly hard to spot. The best bet is to scan the water using binoculars, watching for any movement but in particular the tell-tale v-shape formed in the water behind the otter’s head as it swims. Once you have spotted one, try to stay downwind as they can often smell humans well before they see or hear them. Although some people do successfully see otters while walking with dogs, it will reduce your chances and is more likely to disturb the otter.
Otters tend to dive for around 15-20 seconds and the moment of diving presents a good chance of spotting them as they often flick their tail up in the air as they plunge downwards. They will usually re-emerge in more or less the same area. If they have caught something they will either bring it ashore or lie back in the water with their prey in their front paws to eat it. If you need to move to a better position, do it whilst the otter is diving.
Otters, particularly large males, are easily mistaken for seals. The long tail is a giveaway as is the trademark, Nessie-style three humps often formed when an otter swims and leaves its head, part of its body and a bit of its tail out of the water. If you see the animal “bottling” upright in the water for extended periods, apparently looking back at you, it will be a seal.
Sod’s law dictates that specific trips to watch and photograph otters maybe less likely to result in a sighting. Some of my best encounters have been on coastal walks when I haven’t taken binoculars or camera and have sat open mouthed, half a cheese sandwich partly eaten, as an otter goes about its business on the rocks nearby, blissfully unaware of my presence. Sheer magic!