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Swimming with wild otters

By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

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Swimming with an otter above the surface, and then below

Otters are one of the UK's most graceful and elusive animals. Yet one BBC wildlife presenter has just experienced the rare privilege of swimming with these enigmatic creatures in the sea, and in doing so has captured rare footage of otters hunting underwater.

For one man, filming British otters swimming underwater had become something of a personal obsession.

Charlie Hamilton James may be better known for his passion for another elusive British animal, the kingfisher, which he spent months filming for the recent BBC One series Halcyon River Diaries.

It is a glimpse into the truly secret world of a creature that is so good at keeping its secrets
BBC Autumnwatch presenter Charlie Hamilton James

But Charlie has secretly harboured a desire to film the otter, and to do so on its terms, under the sea where this sleek mammal occasionally ventures to hunt fish, shellfish and assorted marine creatures.

Filming an otter underwater is harder than it sounds.

Once widespread throughout Europe, the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) underwent a dramatic decline during the 20th Century, to the point where the species became rare or extinct across much of its former range.

In the UK, otter numbers fell drastically from the 1950s to the 1970s, with chemical pollution thought to be a major cause.

Although numbers are slowly recovering, the creatures remain elusive, as they tend to be solitary and prefer to be active at dusk and at night when they hunt either within inland waterways or along the coast.

Eurasian otter (Nick Garbutt / NaturePl.com)
Enigmatic and elusive

Despite this, Charlie Hamilton James set out to film wild British otters.

What's more he wanted to film wild cubs, which are held in a den, known as a holt, and the parents hunting underwater.

His first attempt came this summer, when he spent five weeks seeking out wild otters with no success.

This week, he tried again, along with a natural history film crew shooting for the BBC's Autumnwatch, which begins its new series on Thursday, on BBC Two at 2030 BST.

The team, which included producer and cameraman Richard Taylor-Jones and otter expert John Campbell, began its search in Shetland, where otters spend most of their time in the sea, and mother otters are known to bring out their cubs in early autumn.

AN OTTER'S LIFE

At first, the team received a tip off about an otter holt at a ferry terminal and staked it out.

"A huge dog otter turned up but sadly no cubs," says Richard Taylor-Jones.

"Following another lead to another ferry terminal we spotted a female carrying a fish to a large stack of boulders.

"Here she dipped into a gap and disappeared. This was a really good sign that she had cubs inside a holt. Was she taking the fish as a meal to a hungry family?"

The film crew staked out the otter holt and finally got their reward: the appearance of the mother otter followed by two cubs.

However, on Wednesday, Charlie Hamilton James had an even rarer encounter with another group of otters.

Working from the shore, the team found a location from which they could film these otters without spooking them.

Then Charlie Hamilton James donned a wetsuit and got into the water.

Charlie Hamilton James underwater
Charlie Hamilton James seeks out an underwater otter

"The otters were wary of Charlie but not scared. They could not work out what he was," says Richard Taylor-Jones.

"They're not used to humans in the water at all. They watched him from the shore for a while but then got on with hunting and fishing, relatively unbothered by his presence.

"When they were fishing they swam up and around him on a couple of occasions allowing him to get some remarkable footage of them underwater."

The team suspects it may be the first footage of British otters captured hunting underwater in the sea for almost 30 years.

The footage provides a privileged glimpse into how these mammals hunt and swim.

"This showed how they use their whole body to propel them through the water at great speed, not just using their tails or webbed feet," says Richard Taylor-Jones.

"And it revealed where they hunt, right at the sea bed, in amongst all the kelp where the fish are hiding."

The encounter lasted until the otters drew level with Richard Taylor-Jones and otter expert John Campbell, standing on the shore.

Face to face with Shetland's marine life
Face to face with Shetland's marine life

"They could smell us and didn't like it. With a dive into the water they disappeared," says Richard Taylor-Jones.

But the experience struck a chord with the whole team, he says.

"It was incredible to see otters so relaxed in the presence of a human being."

As for how Charlie Hamilton James felt about the experience, his own words speak for themselves.

"I've travelled the world filming incredible animals," he told the BBC.

"But swimming with wild otters in the seas off Shetland is by far and away the most incredible experience I have ever had with a wild animal.

"I guess because it is a glimpse into the truly secret world of a creature that is so good at keeping its secrets."



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