An otterly wonderful encounter

Yeah I went there. Sorry.

But look!

Can you stand it?

So ok, I know the light is crap, but …


So that’s how it started – in the water and with three of them, but only this one was curious and brave enough to stick around in the open. As soon as it climbed up on the log, shake!

I’m pretty sure I heard them before I saw them. They blow through their noses to make this huffy little snort and that’s what I heard as they noticed me and stopped what they were doing to look. I’ve had them do this to me before and even have a little video that you can watch here. Since I’d run into these guys a few bends up the river a little while earlier and didn’t get off a shot, I figured this would end the same way. And of course the camera was in the dry bag and I had to get it out. They’d be gone as soon as I did. Murphy’s Law, right?

Nope. OMG!

This little one stuck around. And then I realized I had the polarizer on and needed to take it off. Luckily it decided to get back on that log and that’s when I got this series. The ones with the polarizer are in focus, but at such high ISO that some detail was lost. These are better.

I think these otters are habituated to humans since this part of the Somo has a lot of houses and boats and stuff. They’re still wary though and I learned a couple of things from my time with them on this day. Most of the time when they’re relaxed, they dive up and down like little periscopes and hardly make a sound. When startled or scared they slap the water with their chins and necks when they dive and it’s loud. Not as loud as when beavers do it with their tails, but it serves the same purpose – as a warning to others that something dangerous or unusual is around.

I also learned that they seem to like riverbanks with some tangly overgrowth or branches to hide in. While trying to stay in position to shoot this one on the log, I drifted into that tangled mess and startled one back into the water with a splash. It was content enough to watch me from the safety of the bank until I got too close. Not that I could have seen it easily or gotten a good photograph, but it’s nice to know where they might feel safe and come out if I’m paddling slowly or just drifting.

I also noticed that their fur is so dense and thick that water sheets off and you can see the sky reflected in it on a few of the shots up there. When it’s done sheeting you can see blond streaks as it parts to reveal the underfur. They also have the smallest ears! Seems like and adaptation pinnipeds have as well and some seals have lost their external ear structures entirely.

The whole thing lasted about 10 minutes, but it was a joyful 10 minutes on both ends. The otter felt safe enough to keep doing its thing and satisfy its curiosity about me. I got my first ever still photographs of a wild river otter. Before I had only shot a single, lonely otter in a zoo.

Of course while I paddled back to the launch site, I was sure I got nothing. Or maybe just one or two. Not over a dozen. Amazing and I guess I’ve learned a thing or two about wildlife photography in the very short time I’ve been doing it. I changed up a couple of things on the fly. Some shots use the 1-Area focus with Animal Detect and others Custom Multi focus. I figured at least one of them had to work best and why not try both? I also lowered my shutter speed to about 1/1000 instead of the baseline 1/1600 which is normal for my C3-1 Custom mode which is for wildlife. This kept my ISO down to 1000 or so and the noise manageable. These are all cropped, but not by much. I was able to keep the boat reasonably still and because the current isn’t strong, I stayed close and it let me!

I’ve heard it said that if an animal is looking directly at you and into the camera, that you’re changing that animal’s behavior. Many photographers feel this is a violation of ethics, but I’m not so sure. Otters and other creatures like crows are pretty curious about humans and human activity and have enough savvy to make sure they don’t endanger themselves while satisfying it. Not only that, but this one seemed downright playful. Check out that paws and head down pose – just like a dog that wants to play. Of course I didn’t approach aggressively or loudly. Basically I turned the boat around and paddled a little closer so to get photos, but not scare it. The otter dictated everything about this little encounter. I was just there to enjoy and photograph it. Eventually it decided I wasn’t much to be fussing over and dove in and swam away. My smile lingered.



5 thoughts on “An otterly wonderful encounter

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      1. I think you were very lucky as most the time they are moving very fast and stay in a group. I have been close before in my kayak (in WI and MN) but never get time to snap a really good picture.

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