river otter

River Otter on the Schoodic Peninsula in Maine by Todd Henson

A mother and three young river otter on shore.

We were extraordinarily lucky on a drive through the Schoodic Peninsula portion of Acadia National Park in Maine. We pulled over at an area with a nice rocky beach facing the water on the right. On the other side of the road were trees, but just through the trees my father spotted a small body of water where a stream emptied. He noticed movement in the stream. Swimming down the stream was a mother river otter with three young. They swam so smoothly through the water, it was as if they were water themselves, just waves moving through the larger stream. This is the first time I can recall ever seeing an otter in the wild.

Two river otter swimming. The closer, darker one, is the mother. The other is a young otter.

Four river otter swimming. The mother has turned her head to look our way.

The otters made their way to the far bank of the stream where there was a small opening at water level. They swam through this opening and shortly afterwards came out from the brush to sun themselves in the grass at the top of the bank. Their fur was so coated in oil it made fascinating patterns with the water.  As soon as they were onshore they began stretching and playing, and then almost appeared ready to lay down and rest. But before long the mother took them back into the water.

Three river otter have gone through the darker opening at water level and are on shore. A fourth is still in the water.

The three river otter are now on shore, while the fourth is at the opening.

They swam closer towards the road. I had been speaking with another photographer who happened to be in the area when the otters arrived. He said they had seen the otter the day before, and that they had crossed the road towards the ocean. I moved away from the area he said they’d crossed, hoping to give them space to cross again, if they chose to. But instead they came towards the shore exactly where I was. I tried to stay quiet and still, and attempted to capture more images, but the tree branches were in the way, and they didn’t stay still for long. The mother peeked her head up right near the shore, perhaps 8 feet from us, and looked at those of us along the side of the road, then moved back out into the middle of the steam and began taking her young upstream, eventually disappearing around the corner.

Four river otter on shore, stretching and scratching.

This entire experience lasted only 6 or 7 minutes, and we were very fortunate to have seen them. I’m very pleased I was able to capture the images I did, though they aren’t as good as I would have liked. I was excited, and likely shaking, trying to follow their movements without causing too much noise or movement of my own. When we first noticed the otter I had my mid-range telephoto lens, a 70-200, on the camera, so that’s what I started with. After they came ashore I took the time to switch to my longer telephoto, a 200-400mm with a 1.4x teleconverter. This allowed me to zoom in closer to the otter in the latter shots. But it’s a heavy lens, so I might have compromised the sharpness at times through camera movement. My father brought over my tripod, so some of the images were shot from that.

Four river otter relaxing and sunning themselves on shore.

Looking at the images now, I wish I’d used a smaller aperture to get a little more depth of field for the group shots, where all the otter were playing or laying together on shore. My aperture was wide open with both lenses, so my depth of field was as shallow as possible with those lenses at that distance. Sometimes shallow depth of field is a nice thing, but in this case, with multiple animals in a group, more depth of field would have been helpful to try to keep all the animals in focus. In conjunction with stopping down the aperture I should have increased the ISO when I switched to the longer lens. This would have allowed me to use faster shutter speeds and lessen the chance of motion blur. I was shooting at ISO 400, which gave me shutter speeds around 1/2000 at f/2.8 with the 70-200, but only around 1/640 to 1/800 at f/5.6 on the 200-400mm with the 1.4x teleconverter.

Four river otter relaxing on shore.

I really wish we’d had more time with the river otter. But the longer we aimed our cameras into the trees the more people took notice of us and started coming over to see what was happening. The otters didn’t seem overly bothered by us while they were in the water or on the opposite shore, but they obviously didn’t like the idea of trying to cross the road to the bay with so many of us there. And larger groups of people sometimes cause problems, so it’s probably just as well the otter returned upstream when they did.

Mother river otter posing for the camera.

Seeing these river otter, which I was told is a rare experience, reminded me of a CreativeLive class I purchased and watched, called The Art of Wildlife Photography, taught by Tom Mangelsen, a master at wildlife photography. He was with students along the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. It was a very similar experience to ours, though he knew there were otters in that area and did hope to see them, but didn’t expect to. As it turned out, though, they were able to watch and photograph a large family of 8 or 9 otter as they swam, fished, and pulled the fish up on the shore to eat. I saw his excitement while watching that class, and now my father and I know some of what he was feeling, having had our own opportunity to view and photograph river otter in their environment. It’s not something I’ll forget anytime soon. I hope one day I’ll get another chance to photograph these remarkable animals, and perhaps capture some better images to share.

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Resources From My Library

CreativeLive: The Art of Wildlife Photography with Tom Mangelsen

The Art of Wildlife Photography  with Tom Mangelsen . Image credit: CreativeLive

The Art of Wildlife Photography with Tom Mangelsen. Image credit: CreativeLive

As mentioned above, the CreativeLive class The Art of Wildlife Photography with Tom Mangelsen is a great resource if you’re becoming serious about wildlife photography and want to learn from one of the best. It was a 2-day class with almost 11 and a half hours of video, both in studio in front of a group of students, and in the field in various locations showing how he approaches subjects and talking you through how he shoots. I purchased this class back in 2014, and I think it’s time I watched it again. Each time I rewatch these types of classes I’m able to pick up more, and there’s always more to learn.

Captured: Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer by Moose Peterson

And for the book lovers there’s Moose Peterson’s book, Captured: Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer. I’ve really enjoyed this book. It’s more than just lessons, it’s stories from Moose’s life on how he got where he is and what it is that drives him. He’s passionate about the wildlife, not just the photography, and I think that’s very important. The book is very easy to read. Moose has written it in a very conversational tone. It’s as if he’s right there in person telling you his stories. A recommended read for any budding wildlife photographer.