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Shetland 2015 – Day 3 Otters & Storm Petrels

Wow! What a truly amazing day…. and a very long day, that went on until 2am this morning.

We started the day meeting John Moncrieff, a Shetland photographer, who has worked a lot with the Shetland otters and has some incredible images. It is well worth checking out his website by clicking on the link below. He is now starting to take clients out, in search of otters.

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Shetland is one of the best place in the UK to photograph otter. The population of Eurasian otters here in Shetland is approximately 12% of the UK total and is one of the most dense populations in Europe. This has been recognised by the Scottish Executive, which has designated areas of Shetland as SAC’s (Special Area of Conservation) specific for otters. The Shetland’s otters numbers are due Shetland’s pristine marine and terrestrial habitat which provides abundant prey species and undisturbed coastal areas.

The untouched and complex coastline provides perfect habitat for these elusive mammals, but makes them difficult to locate. It may well be the a wonderful place to see and photograph otter, but don’t expect it to be easy… as with photographing any wild mammal, a combination of fieldcraft, local knowledge and a good smattering of luck is needed and we walked over 8km to locate the otters we found.

We headed down to an inlet where John has seen and photographed a number of individuals. Wind direction is all important. Otter have excellent sense of smell and you will have chance of a close encounter is they can smell you. Always make sure the wind is in your face, ensuring your scent is carried away from them.

For a while, we walked along the coast, scanning the sea for any sign of otter. Suddenly, we spotted an individual bobbing a couple of hundred metres from the shore. Ensuring we were not silhouetted against the skyline, we waited for it to dive and then ran low along the coastline to get upwind of it. Watching it closely, as soon as it surfaced, we all froze. When it dived, we all moved again. Once in position, upwind of the otter, we gradually dropped down onto the coastline and then it is a matter of hoping the otter catches something large which it would want to bring onshore to eat. We waited for some time, watching this individual dive repeatedly, almost always coming up with a fish of some time.

My heart was racing, when the otter I was watching with the binoculars, turned and started heading straight towards us with a large fish in its mouth. It disappeared and I scanned the area. Suddenly, there it was, right in front of me, on a limpet coated rock.  Unaware of our presence, we all got some great shots of this individual as it chewed its way through the Butter fish. They are incredibly well camouflaged and completely silent, almost fluidly appearing and disappearing.

These images are straight from the camera and unprocessed screen captures from my laptop.

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Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it slipped silently into the water  and was gone. We all grinned at each other, knowing we had all captured some great images of our first Shetland otter!

Once again, we scanned the sea and watched this individual swim up the coast. Repeating the stop and start run, as the otter dived, we followed it and again positioned ourselves inshore from it hunting. This time, when it came ashore, there were lots of boulders and it was very difficult to locate. Lucky for me, I had a small window be tern tow boulders and it suddenly appeared between. It looked straight at me, but remaining perfectly still, it could not see me and carried on…

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You can imagine my joy at seeing such a beautiful wild animal at such close quarters…. although this shot is a crop of the original.

We were all pretty chuffed to have had such encounters, but keen to see what else we could see. With the tide now in and stomachs rumbling after hours out on the coast, we headed to Frankie’s Fish & Chips; renown in Shetland for its superb meals and we were not disappointed!

By the time we had eaten and headed back down to a different coastline, the tide was starting to go out again.



We spent several hours sitting, walking and scanning the sea and coastline until we spotted another individual. Repeating the tactics used in the morning, we again sunk down low onto to the coast and got ourselves ready … would this individual also come into the shore?… indeed it did!

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We all took lots of images of this otter as it stayed in front of us for a few minutes. Our positioning, wind in the right direction and our stillness meant this otter was unaware of us… the way it should be!

This Eider also made a brief appearance…

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By now, time was moving on and we began to think about heading back, as we were all heading to Mousa for an evening sailing to see the Storm Petrels. Saying goodbye to John and thanking him for his expert knowledge and assistance in locating these individuals, we started to drive back to Cheyne House. Within 10 minutes, as we came around a bay, Pete spotted another otter out in the sea. We pulled up on a lay-by and got the binoculars out. This individual looked  like it may come inshore , so we were soon all togged up again and heaving our kit back out of the car!

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I clambered along the rocky shoreline, tracking this individual as the lads made their way along the grass above me. The otter disappeared around a small stone jetty and I could see Pete and Andy looking over a tall stone wall. I clambered up and peeped over the top. Unbelievably, this individual had climbed up onto a small sheltered spot, was cleaning itself and settling down for a snooze! We simply could not believe our luck. This otter stayed there for nearly 20 minutes and, as you can imagine, we all took rather  a lot of show of this idyllic scene! I even managed some video. Here are just a few  of the many shots I took that I simply can’t wait to have a good look at.

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Buzzing with excitement, we made out way back to Cheyne, with an hour to spend before we had to head down to the port to catch the boat to Mousa. What an incredible day… and it was not over.

Mousa is a small island  (“Mossy Island” in Old Norse) and is an RSPB Nature Reserve with important breeding colonies of seals and seabirds including the  storm petrel, hundreds of which have made their home within the mighty broch walls. One of Shetland’s most spectacular sights is the return in late evening of hundreds of small storm petrel birds after a day feeding out at sea. The northern latitude means it never really gets dark in the summer (known as the “Simmer Dim”) and the birds use this half-light to evade predators on their return to nest in the Mousa Broch and the nearby beach and field walls. It was the longest day, so we knew we would have maximum daylight hours and, in fact, it would not get completely dark.

This is midsummer in Shetland…..


The North Eastern wind meant it was a tad choppy on the way out to Mousa, but the ten minutes soon passed and we were stepping up onto the island at half 11pm, the light just dim, but bright enough for us to take a photo and easily see where we were going.


It is quite a special experience being at Mousa at night, as we made our way up to the Broch, where many of the Storm Petrels nest. We were waiting for the light to drop to its lowest as this is when the petrels would return to their rocky crevice nest holes, safe from predators. Their whirring and churring calls could be heard from the walls. I recorded this with my iPhone!

It is a magical experience to stand in the half light as these incredible bird whirr around your head like bats in the twilight, as they search for their mate tucked up safely in the protective rocky wall crevices.

I had taken my Bushnell Equinox Z night vision camera with me. This cool piece of kit allows you to film in IR, without disturbance. I had thought that this trip would be a perfect place to use it. There was an individual in the wall in the entrance to the Brock… unseen by the naked eye in the gloom. Looking through the Equinox, I could clearly see it and recorded a video clip. (These will be uploaded on my return home)

I took some screen captures to show the amazing quality of this cracking bit of IR kit!

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I also attempted to film them coming back to some of the rocky shore, but that was more difficult as focus is manual. I did capture one brief return…

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We stayed on Mousa until about 1.30am, before we headed back to the boat and back to the mainland.

What a truly incredible day of wildlife experiences… thank you wonderful Shetland!


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