Tuesday 26 April 2022

An Encounter with an Otter 18th April 2022

A two week holiday on our favourite Isle of Arran commenced yesterday afternoon. I was wearied by the long drive north from Oxfordshire and the now predictable delays with Calmac's ageing and unreliable vessels that ferry visitors and locals to Arran from the Scottish mainland. 

However I rose early the next morning to be out and about before island life commenced in earnest.We are fortunate that we choose to stay on the northwest side of the island, which while admirably rugged and scenic is crucially also far less populated than the more favoured southern side facing the Scottish mainland.

Our rented cottage looks directly out to the sea, in the form of Kilbrannan Sound, which constitutes a scenic seascape between our part of Arran and Kintyre. Our home for the next two weeks is literally less than fifty metres from a rocky seashore that lies below a bank of grass and gorse bushes, the latter currently bringing a sensory delight in an explosion of bright yellow blooms and musky peppery scent. All I had to do this morning was cross the tiny road that encircles the island and passes our front gate, then walk onto the grass on the other side of the road, to find myself right by the sea.

It had rained during the night, the raindrops spattering and splintering on the window panes, driven there by a cold wind but the rain had desisted by morning and sunny periods were promised for later. My aim was to try and see a summer plumaged Great Northern Diver that I had briefly glimpsed yesterday evening between scudding rain squalls.

I duly found the diver, swimming fairly close to the shore. It was an adult, rapidly acquiring its chequered black and white breeding finery but it submerged and try as I might I could not relocate the bird.

Half an hour passed, futilely trying to relocate the diver but then the close proximity of our cottage to the seashore brought more than adequate compensation, as my wife was able to hail me from the bedroom window announcing she had just seen an Otter, close into the shoreline and very near to where I was standing on the grass. Uncertain as to her directions I scanned the sea beyond the rocky shore but could find nothing. I tried closer, checking the jumble of rocks and seaweed just above the incoming sea.

Nothing  immediately took my notice but then on a disused and seaweed festooned, rusting pipe, running into the sea, I lingered. Something, almost indefinable, stood out from the normal. Nine times out of ten it turns out to be nothing but the experience of many years insisted I check just in case this was going to be the exception to the customary denouement.

What looked like a discarded furry rug. a darker ginger brown than the seaweed on which it lay was an indefinable shape, sat slightly proud of the weed but there was no form to it. No outline that would point to an identity other than the aforementioned rug, although something stirred a memory, a recall  of an image I had seen in the past, a photo in a book  maybe or an image on a wildlife programme.

As I scrutinised this lump, it was as if my eyes suddenly focused and I knew instantly what I saw. My memory had not failed me. What had just seemed shapeless, just another contorted lump of seaweed, was now irrevocably discernible as a sleeping Otter. The lump was its bunched hindquarters from which projected a slim body sloping down to a head which was currently barely visible, resting on its side on a bed of seaweed. The animal was curled on its side. The pale cream fur of its chin and throat were now instantly recognisable and obvious.This sudden revelation made me feel foolish at not having grasped the reality sooner but the excitement of my discovery soon banished any feeling of self recrimination.

Still some metres from its resting place I edged down the bank, sidling through a narrow passage between two gorse bushes, and then onto the rocks and stones forming the shore. Gently I trod on uncountable stones of all shapes and sizes, each one made treacherous and slick with seaweed, careful not to lose my balance as a fall would be disastrous, not just for my wellbeing and the expensive camera and optics hung around my neck but much worse, would inevitably scare the Otter away.

Ever so cautiously  I continued to move towards the Otter, constantly keeping my eye on where I next placed my feet for fear of losing my balance and stumbling but equally worried that if I took my eyes off the Otter for longer than seconds it might notice my hesitant approach and slip away un-noticed, rendering my caution worthless. l continued to move forward slowly, painfully slowly, trying so far successfully, to contain my excitement and curb any impetuous action it would precipitate on my part.

I stopped at regular intervals. Conscious that this early morning, unsteady progression must seem very strange to any onlooker and would undoubtedly attract unwelcome curiosity and attention but at this time in the morning I was content there was no one and it was just me and the Otter, which remained  fast asleep on its bed of seaweed. Fortunately I was downwind so my scent could not be carried to its sensitive nostrils and cause instant alarm. Remarkably it still had not registered my physical presence and just as remarkably I had contrived to not make any extraneous sound that would alert it. The Otter briefly raised its head but then lowered it and slept on. I came to a final stop six metres away from the slumbering creature. The temptation with a camera is always to try and  go just that bit closer but I resisted. There was no need to go any closer. The qualities of my camera and lens guaranteed the images I could now achieve would be perfect, even sensational, at a range such as this.

The Otter never moved, it was deep in sleep, its head buried in the weed. Its thick fur was dry, in direct contrast to the wet slimy weed that it had chosen to lie on.  A photo of an Otter, much of it obscured by seaweed is all well and good but hardly compensated for the promise of something far better if it moved or raised its head. I stood, silent and unmoving, making sure my foothold was firm and I was balanced, my profile hopefully none too obvious due to the rising shelf of stony beach behnd me and the bank of gorse and grass beyond.

There was nothing more I could do but raise the camera to my eye and endure an agony of suspense and expectation. Waiting for the Otter to move. I was so close to getting some great photographs and in the meantime reminded myself that I was currently experiencing an unforgettable and rare, close encounter with a truly wild Otter. I reasoned that as the tide was rising there would soon come a point where it would reach the seaweed which would prompt the Otter to move its position. This would be my opportunity. I remained poised with the camera to my eye, my arms aching from the effort and hoping above all else this would work and the Otter would not sense my presence before I could capture the moment. 

I waited three, possibly five minutes.It had to happen soon, surely, and to my relief the Otter finally raised its head as if surprised to find the sea lapping at its bed. It shifted position, its head looking straight at me. 

I clicked away with the camera. Would it hear the shutter clicks? Surely it would discern my outline but no, it looked myopically in my direction and then closed its eyes and lowered its head to sleep a while longer.

I could hardly believe it. Six metres from a wild Otter. Standing in the open on a windswept strand of rocks of all shapes and sizes and the Otter showing no semblance of suspicion.

It raised its head once more but was now showing signs that it realised something was not quite as it should be but still was not alarmed enough to flee and so, for some minutes this situation continued before the rising tide swamped its bed of seaweed and a slight involuntary movement on my part convinced the Otter its suspicions had foundation.

It  casually slipped from the rock, sinuous and graceful with a long, pole like tail held in an upward curve as it entered the water, then swam no further than to a flat rocky peninsula and clambered up onto  another rock where it fed on a  dogfish it had caught on the way. 

Once the fish was consumed  it re-entered the water and then settled some way distant on yet another exposed rock of pink granite, starred with white barnacles and lumpen green seagrass that clung there like some ill fitting hairpiece and on which it promptly went to sleep.

I had previously left the Otter and made my way back to land and the road above the shoreline, congratulating myself on some half decent images but this was too good an opportunity to miss, so once more it was time to make another perilous walk out to the distant shoreline, slip sliding on the uneven stones, treacherous seaweed and bladderwrack, the prostrate strings of bladders strewn across and between the rocks like abandoned bead curtains, awaiting the tide to bring them back to floating life.

Cautiously, I again approached the Otter. Surely it would notice me with no opportunity to conceal myself on a large open area of stones, sand and seaweed. I felt horribly exposed but working on the principle of nothing ventured nothing gained I continued to edge seawards. I was relaxed, as after all I had already got some exceedingly good shots of the Otter so anything more would be a pleasant bonus.

I came to a halt and as before took the Otter's picture as it reclined in repose and latterly as it became semi alert. Still comparatively early in the morning I remained a lone figure, standing far out on this tide exposed peninsula of stones and seaweed, the wind, waves and crying gulls harmonising into a lullaby for an Otter half asleep on a rock.

Such an intense experience with all the heightened excitment it brought could not possibly last much longer. 

It came to its natural conclusion when the Otter awoke and slipped from the rock into the incoming tide and I saw it no more.