Otter watching for beginners

Has it been a good day? Well for me it has if I have had the chance to watch otters in the wild. They feature highly in my top ten of memorable wildlife encounters.

© Ashley Smith

I can pretty much remember every otter I have seen; where I was, who I was with, how many otters there were and what they were eating. We are so fortunate to live in an area that provides the perfect habitat for otters, and the opportunities of being able to watch them locally are particularly good. I am sure some reading this article are regular otter watchers, but for those that are not but would like to be, I have listed a few tips that might help you if want to witness one of nature’s most amazing yet elusive animals.

Firstly, people are often confused thinking that there are two different Otter species in Britain, the River Otter and the Sea Otter. In fact, they are the same species (Lutra Lutra) it is just that they have different habitats in which they live and hunt. These observations are more geared to watching otters on the river.

Otter watching tips


Pick your time to go otter watching. Early calm mornings are often good. Probably the best time of year to watch them is in the depths of winter. Otters need to feed more often when it is very cold and so they are hunting more regularly and can often be seen during the day. if the river is frozen, they are easy to spot running across the ice as they attempt to find open water to fish.


Approach the river bank quietly, otters hear extremely well, and you can often disturb them if they hear you talking.


Look for the ‘ring of bright water’, these are the rings in the water that are made when an otter dives into the water to hunt. Not to be confused with the salmon that create similar ripples when they jump out of the water. If you are not sure as you only saw the ripples or heard a splash or do not know what made them, concentrate on the rings for a minute or so. If it is an otter, it will often show itself again near to the ripples.


Look also to the opposite river bank. Often otters will leave the river and run along the bank if their holt is nearby. A holt is where they sleep when they are not hunting. They can sometimes be seen sliding down the bank into the river, and these runs can be a giveaway to an otter’s territory. Sometimes a female otter will be hunting in the river and her young otters will run up and down the river bank watching her. I once filmed an otter in the river only to return home and realised I had also unknowingly filmed two young otters cubs running up and down the river bank in amongst the trees.


If you see an otter and you have someone with you do not shout ‘Otter over there’ whilst jumping up and down pointing frantically towards the animal! No-one else will see it as they will disappear immediately. Agree with your companion that if either of you see an otter you will quietly let the other know with an agreed sign.


If you do see one and want to move, wait until the otter dives under the water. Make sure that by the time it pops back up you are stationary again.


If you are photographing otters, see if your camera has a silent mode so that the otter is not disturbed by the sound of the camera. I have had otters walk to with a metre of me because I did not move or make a sound. They are very inquisitive and interested in you as a still object, just not a moving or noisy one.


Pick an area to watch for otters where you have a good distance of visibility. That way you can cover more ground when looking up and down the riverbank.


A successful otter watch is when you can observe them without disturbing them. So, when you decide to leave either wait until they have moved on or retreat when the otters are submerged in the water. There is a great sense of achievement if you have watched an otter in the wild and it never even knew you were there.


Lastly make a note of where you saw them, the date, time, and weather conditions. The otter is there for a reason, perhaps the river height is good and there is plenty of food available. That way if you return when the conditions are similar your chances of seeing them increase. Happy Otter watching!

by Ashley Smith

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