British wildlife photographer Charlie Hamilton James’s charming close-ups of otters grace the February 2013 issue of National Geographic Magazine. (View the photo gallery.) Here, he tells us how he captured such clear images of the shy creatures and their watery world.
I’ve wanted to shoot a feature on otters for National Geographic Magazine since I was a kid. When I finally got the assignment, I was excited, but also daunted. Eurasian otters are extremely shy, generally nocturnal, and very difficult to photograph. The advantage I did have was that I’d spent the last twenty years filming and studying otters (mainly for the BBC)—oh, and they happened to live in my backyard.
My house, in southwest England, is situated beside a small river where otters live. I was very keen to photograph the otters at night and include some of their habitat in the images if possible; I wanted to give the reader a real understanding of how and where these animals live. The first thing I did was put out camera traps where I saw that the otters had worn a path along the riverbank.
Not wanting to disturb the otters, I started out using an infrared camera and filters, but the resulting shots were boring, so I decided to try firing a flash of visible light. To my surprise, they didn’t even blink! As the otters became more used to the system each night, I found that I could make more bold adjustments to the lighting without disturbing them. It wasn’t long until I was firing three strobes on the camera trap and lighting the background with some very large floodlights. The eventual shot I ended up with from all this experimenting and tweaking didn’t make the cut, but it taught me that the otters would tolerate much more than I had imagined.
Little is known about how otters live on rivers at night, and over the years I have tried to unravel some of their secrets. Otters are known to hunt fish using their eyesight and large whiskers, which are highly sensitive to movement. But I’ve always suspected that their sense of smell is involved, too.
I figured that if an otter could find a dead fish in a murky river at night, then it certainly wasn’t relying on its whiskers (a dead fish wouldn’t move), or eyesight (useless in the dark and murk of the river). So I tied a dead trout to a brick, placed it in the river and immersed a video camera next to it. I then lit the scene with some infrared lights, wired it all back to my kitchen and waited for an otter.
I was very lucky. On the first night, an otter swam up and immediately found the dead trout. I had the whole river wired with cameras, so I could see the otter from above and below the water. It looked like it swam past the fish at first, then suddenly looped back and grabbed it. When I replayed the underwater video a few times I noticed something intriguing. The otter released a bubble from its nose as it approached the fish, then instantly sniffed it back in. Otters supposedly keep their nostrils closed underwater, but this one appeared to be inhaling a bubble—a bubble full of fish scent, maybe?
To get more details, I invented all sorts of underwater camera trapping systems. It took lots of fiddling to finally start getting good images. The otters soon got so used to a flash firing in their face underwater that they totally ignored it. Eventually, I wired everything back to my kitchen so that my assistant Hector and I could watch the underwater action on small monitors and use remote triggers to shoot the images live. The results were exactly what I wanted. We were eventually forced to stop when one of the otters flipped a rock into the dome port of my underwater camera housing and scratched it. It cost a lot to repair, but I didn’t mind—she was a very cool otter!
The photographs revealed a couple of insights. Firstly, even though I continuously reduced the size of the bits of fish I put in the camera traps until they were no more than an inch long, the otters always managed to find them straight away. I also noticed that the otters would often hold a bubble of air under their top lip whilst they foraged. Whether this was deliberate and used for sensing or not, I don’t know, but it appeared in a lot of the images. That’s the part of the mystery I want to study next.
The rivers of England at night work fine for shooting carefully set-up images of passing otters, but for a wilder perspective, I needed to leave my backyard and head far out in the north Atlantic, to the archipelago of Shetland. It’s a barren, cold place, but stunningly beautiful. In fact, it’s my favorite place on Earth. I spent six weeks alone there when I was 16, photographing otters, and I moved there for a while in my late teens. Otters live along the coast and hunt during the day, their routines linked to the rhythm of the tides.
I wanted to shoot images of them hunting in the sea, which meant approaching them in the water. I had been attempting this since I was 17 (over 20 years ago), but had yet to capture a decent still photo of an otter underwater in the sea. Over the years, though, I had gotten a lot better at seeing them and refined my approach, which allowed for more frequent and closer encounters.
I spent many hours in the water over the next two months. The visibility of the water was so bad that often I’d not see an otter until it was five or six feet away from me. I continued shooting, though, and eventually got a shot that I was happy with: An otter emerging from a kelp bed with a small fish in his mouth. It was a lovely moment to witness, and the image was one of the six—out of 23,000 that I shot—that made it into the final magazine story.
—Charlie Hamilton James