Respectful wildlife photography safari is sensitive success story
A ONE-DAY otter photography workshop in the Scottish Highlands brought writer MARY FISCHER up close and personal with the natural world. Here she outlines a perfect day in the wild.
Wedged awkwardly in a rock crevice, feet soaking in a salty rock pool, my lens is just a few feet away from two otters stretching and relaxing nonchalantly in the afternoon sun.
My aim in booking this trip was to fulfil a long-held ambition to see otters in the wild. Any good photographs would be a bonus. Above all I wanted to be sure the trip was respectful of the animals and their environment.
I booked the workshop with Loch Visions, a company which organises small photography workshops on the west coast of Argyll. After a 7am start – otters are early risers – we drove to a location which my guide, Philip Price, had researched for the sole purpose of facilitating photographic encounters with these elusive creatures.
The location alone was worth the early start: a wide sweep of bays and rocky inlets backed on to rough grazing and dramatic ridges of jagged pillars of rock stretching in parallel lines towards the point at the end of the bay.
After a few fruitless recces on foot along the coast my innate pessimism was beginning to assert itself. Was it really possible to see otters to order? I decided to be philosophical and enjoy the view.
But as we rounded a corner to a bay we had visited a couple of times previously, I saw a couple of helmet shapes bobbing out of the water. ‘What’s that?’ I asked innocently. It turned out to be two otters, a mother and last year’s grown-up cub, caught on camera recently by other lucky snappers.
Philip made sure we stayed downwind of the otters and out of sight by staying low among the rocks – not the easiest with a heavy camera and long lens but maximising our chances of success. Wild Scotland’s guidelines for observing wild animals, drawn up to ensure the boom in wildlife tourism does not stress the animals involved, emphasise the need to avoid disturbing them.
I was delighted with my initial brief sighting – mission accomplished, I have seen and photographed an otter – but Philip was able to track the animals without them being aware of us for around two hours.
Often, they were quite far out at sea, where we could watch them fishing and feeding. I joked at one point, “Now we need them to come on shore in front of us for a rest”. They did, not just once, but several times. Which is how I ended up wedged in a crevice with my feet in a rock pool, pressing the shutter furiously, unable to believe my luck.
Talking with Philip made me realise that I am just one of a growing number of tourists and enthusiasts who want to see Scotland’s amazingly rich and diverse wildlife for themselves.
The precise contribution of wildlife tourism to Scotland’s economy is hard to pin down. The most recent official report dates from 2010 and puts it at £65m.
Lonely Planet’s Highlands and Islands Best in Travel edition 2019 and Visit Scotland research suggests most tourists visit because of the spectacular scenery, landscape and wildlife.
Recent Visit Scotland figures indicate that total tourist spending in Scotland is worth around £12bn and contributes £6bn to Scottish GDP, around 5% of the total.
High quality opportunities for engaging with wildlife are proliferating. Not far from the Argyll otters, whose company I briefly enjoyed, wildlife tourists also have the opportunity to encounter beavers in their natural habitat.
When I visited the site was closed, ironically because they were building better visitor facilities. Visit Scotland has recently awarded its highest 5-star rating to a company in nearby Oban, Basking Shark Scotland, which organises trips to see these magnificent sea creatures. The list and the opportunities are growing.
Recognising the central role the coast plays in Scottish tourism, Visit Scotland has designated 2020 as a year to showcase the country’s coasts and waterways, encouraging responsible interaction from locals and visitors.
The otters, beavers, sharks and the rest will no doubt be glad to hear it. They might even feel this recognition is overdue. The quality of wildlife tourism is dependent on maintaining and enhancing populations of wildlife, which is in turn dependent on the quality of the environment. And the marine environment is under pressure from a number of economic factors.
The exploitation of kelp is a case in point. Environmental activists recently won a campaign against the introduction of mechanical kelp dredging. The industry claimed it could have been worth up to £300m a year to the economy. Environmentalists successfully argued it would ruin the local ecosystem and even have potentially significant ramifications for carbon capture and climate change. It would certainly have affected the otter population, since they hunt and fish in the kelp forests.
Of even greater concern is the growth of salmon farming, currently worth around £600m to the Scottish economy and Scotland’s biggest food export. A report presented to the Scottish Parliament last year concluded, however, that further expansion of the industry without addressing environmental issues would be unsustainable and that the sector is not being sufficiently regulated. The effects of the treatment of sea lice in farmed salmon have been devastating for the population of wild salmon and the wider marine environment.
The tourism industry I encountered during my visit was far removed from these mega-industries. The wildlife photography company Loch Visions and many other similar small-scale operations introduce visitors to local wildlife in a respectful and sustainable way.
The immediate providers are not the only beneficiaries. I spent two nights at a lovely local B&B – the early start meant I had to be there the day before and the lovely scenery made me want to stay an extra night. Owners Mark and Helen open out of season for Loch Vision customers because it is to everyone’s advantage. They provide guests with a generous do-it-yourself breakfast before the long trudge along the coastline.
While in the village we bought meals at the excellent local pub. The village shop has recently lost its post office but was doing a roaring trade selling chocolate hazelnut espresso cake and coffee for tourists poring over maps, planning walks and enjoying the views over the bay. Local artists’ work was also on sale in the shop.
As I sip my tea I think about the wonders of nature in this exceptional place. I hope Visit Scotland celebrate the habitat of local wildlife with the fanfare it deserves next year. But a part of me really just wants to keep the otters to myself!