SEAWEED + SALT

The Isle of Mull, Scotland

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With everything in the world that has been happening during the last two years, my motivation, like many others, has been hit hard for a good portion of that time. Fourteen months to be exact since adding to my wildlife portfolio, so with the chance of some clear weather during what would eventually become a three-week trip, I packed up and headed north back up to the west coast of Scotland. The plan was to spend some time on the Isle of Mull photographing the quite remarkable Eurasian otters whilst re-visiting some of my favourite areas on the island that would no doubt serve as a great recipe to rekindle my love for the wilderness.

I have always been fond of Mull, the dramatic single-track roads that cut between the towering mountain of Ben More have always been distilled in my memory ever since I first stepped onto the island all those years ago. The rugged terrain of Loch Na Keal reminds me of why I invested all of my time during the very early years chasing a life as a wildlife photographer, for the adventure, the free spirit, the love for one man’s happiness to be smothered within nature and all its glory, this is why I chose this path, all one man needs to be fulfilled is right there within the landscape. The pristine white grains of sand on Calgary Bay take me back to the days nestled between the sand dunes reading Joy Adamson’s Born Free, whilst the sounds of the Golden eagle soaring the skies above echo across the rock faces of the adjacent cliffs. Etched deep in memory, the Isle of Mull fascinates me in so many ways.

Leaving the ferry from Craignure, there was simply no time like the present, and as you carry on reading below, this is a story from the 27th of July that captivated me like never before.

Four days pass and with the only sighting of the Eurasian otter some distance away further north of the island, it was fair to say trying to find a suitable location with a regular sighting was providing quite the challenge amid temperatures of 25 degrees Celcius. On the morning of the 27th of July, things were a little different. I awoke with the alarm vibrating against the thinly stretched mesh pocket suspended above my tent, the time was showing 04:15 am. I knew sunrise was just over 1 hour away as I had meticulously planned the sunrise times alongside the level of the tide just a couple of days before.

As I began opening the front zipper to the tent porch, my eyes slowly adjust to the beautiful sight of the last moments of twilight, the creamy midnight blue tones giving way to fiery golden hues that were hustling with the storm clouds, both wanting prime position above the horizon line. The morning air was relatively still with only the slightest of water ripples folding over each other amongst the deeply engraved pebbles on the shoreline of the loch. The sharp peep peep sound of an Oystercatcher quickly grabs my attention, watching it effortlessly gliding past me as I fill up my stove with water for the morning coffee. Mornings like this are what I crave, being alone surrounded by the mountains, in the presence of wildlife, sending me into an almost trance-like state. Time alone and time to think about future adventures to come, I take time to reflect on the world at the present time and what may unfold in another couple of years. That constant thought about Africa beckons once more, and with that, I take a sip of the freshly brewed coffee and smile about the positives that are in the world at this moment in time.

As I take a step back from the edge of the water trying my best to avoid the fallen trees that lay beside me, I take a look to my right towards the east, the colours that now greet me above are becoming deeper and deeper, the clouds have turned to the most dramatic dark grey colour that reminds me of volcanic ash, the image is awe-inspiring as I take a photograph of what lies in front of me. There is something majestic about the mountains, they make you realize how insignificant you are to the beauty and power of nature and the landscape. Strangely, they also give you a sense of meaning, a guide, a gift like a token of good fortune funneling positive thoughts that give you a true meaning to the world. I guess that is the real essence of a landscape such as this one, you can feel overwhelmed but also inspired in a single moment.

The image below, ” The Burning Ridge “. A combination of the haze that is making its way across the front of the mountains combined with the deep-set tones of orange that are rising from behind them, give me the perception of a mountain that is on fire, even more so along the ridgeline as both the haze and the rising sun meet in tandem, imagining the ridgeline is about to go up in flames in an instance.

Making my way back towards camp, I triple-check I have everything I need for this morning’s search for the Eurasian otter. To my amazement, having not seen one for some years now, a confident and bold-looking hedgehog makes an appearance as I watch it make its way alongside the newly surfaced road that is reflecting the morning with such a glowing glimmer. Eventually, the hedgehog disappears into the dense foliage leading towards the twisted and gnarly trees that await, what a wonderful place I think to myself for a small mammal such as the hedgehog. No sooner than the hedgehog vanishes, I begin my early morning walk as I click into place the last strap on my backpack and take a quick glance at my watch, 04:50 am.

Sunrise was still a good half an hour away and with the ever-thickening of the clouds in every direction, I had time on my side in terms of not chasing the light. With that in mind, I decided to take a little detour towards the southwest side of the loch, put down my rucksack, and opened up to chapter 4 of the book Stranger in the Forest by Eric Hansen. I instantly thought to myself, there really cannot be that many better places to be reading a book about one man’s will to travel on foot across some of Borneo’s most dense rainforests whilst being sat on the edges of the loch, barefoot in the water, and looking out to views expanding right out across the glen, a stretched panoramic scene as far as the eye could see. Lush expanses of fields give way to moody jagged peaks above, buzzards quietly perched on farmer’s fence posts below, what a morning to be alive.

The only books that I enjoy reading are the ones that are fuelled by a desire to enter the unknown, the ones that are focused on travel and exploration, and Hansen’s Stranger in the Forest certainly ticks those boxes. I find it absorbing that one man’s aspiration to travel through some of Borneo’s most unknown rainforests in a time where there were limited maps, and rainforests so dense you could hardly see a few metres in front of you at times, a very intriguing prospect. The book is also a stark reminder of how far off track humankind has come. In a time where only human beings knew how to live, was a time spent exploring, living off the land, and being completely free of any distractions that we now find on a daily basis in modern society. A society that has stripped most of us from appreciating the natural world, a digital bubble that has now programmed humans to a robotic and routined way of living. Hansen reflects on this even back in the 1980s, and I find his stories transfixing on many levels.

With chapter 4 of the book finally at a close, I take one last look towards the glen where I notice an explosion of light casting deep and heavy shadows across the upper slopes of the glen. Photographically speaking, a scene like this just cries out minimalism, and in that very moment, that is indeed what I wanted to portray before the light would inevitably fade. An image of nothing but light and shadow, a reminder that sometimes photography doesn’t always have to be about grand vistas, but more about what the image means to you individually, and what an image can portray through the power of dramatic light.

The light came and went in a flash and I soon began to gather up all of my equipment ready for the steady walk north of the loch in search of any signs of otter activity. Time check, 06:05 am. As I made my way alongside the rocky terrain I began taking a moment every few minutes to scan the area for any sign of movement in the water, this was made much easier this morning due to the low intensity of the wind, in turn making the water within the loch much more still. So still infact, the reflections that were now being produced were quite phenomenal. With a silvery mirrored finish, the hills and rocks on the western side of the loch cast their image across the smooth and shimmering surface of this amazing body of water.

Gulls, oystercatchers, and seals showed well during the first 20 minutes, but there was still no sign of what I truly desired, and I was beginning to wonder if I would be left with yet another morning without a single sighting. The sun had now risen above the horizon but with the thick cloud still lingering above the peaks of the mountains, the purple violet light was for the most part now diluted, nonetheless, the light was rather pleasing to the eye. The light being projected was spilling a soft warm tone across the abundance of seaweed and rock that could be found in every direction I now glanced towards.

As I pondered whether or not to carry on walking further along the edge of the loch, I then saw something in the distance quickly submerge under the water nearby a pristine and well looked after yacht. The yacht was an immaculate shade of the purest of whites imaginable as I took a closer look through my binoculars. I tried to make out the name that was chiseled into a wooden plaque that looked meticulously placed. Four people were on that yacht that morning, all laughing and joking, probably to my expense with them already seeing numerous sightings of otters I thought to myself. I placed the binoculars down next to the rock I was now sat on, one of the larger rocks beside me which had been battered and engulfed for years and years by the numerous amounts of saltwater was enriched with hundreds and hundreds of small Limpets, all calling that very rock their home.

Still scanning the water, where were you I thought? as soon as I had a fleeting glimpse of something, with the click of a finger I had lost it. I headed to where the last bend in the road gave way either side to copper coloured shrubbery that now swayed side to side in slow motion, feeling more and more anxious about not fulfilling what I had in mind for this trip, I began contemplating a scenario of going back to England empty-handed. 6:40 am and I was beginning to crave some morning oats with a big spoonful of raspberry jam, accompanied by another coffee straight from the aero press for equal measure, so I decided on heading back along the road and back to camp for some much-needed energy.

Back at camp, using the parcel shelf of my car as a makeshift breakfast area I make no hesitation in cooking up some gloriously tasting oats. A quick rummage through the food box and I mix together oats, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and cinnamon into the Jetboil whilst adding the milk steadily until piping hot and steam begins to rise from the pot. Oats set aside, I start grinding my coffee beans ready for brewing my second one of the morning. As soon as the coffee trickles through the filter of the aero press and a large dollop of jam is added to the oats, I pull out the camping chair and stare into the distance, clasping my hands around the warm pot of oats.

I realize this is now my sixth day on the Island, the first three days I spent exploring some of my old favourite places such as Calgary Bay, Langamull, and Loch Na Keal whilst exploring more of the island I hadn’t explored previously. One of those areas was southwest of the island called Knockvologan. A picture-perfect postcard setting with endless views of inlet islands creating a jigsaw effect together with the crystal clear waters flowing between. A fabulous setting to spend a day floating on the turquoise waters cocooned inside a kayak staring into the midday blue sky. I reminisce to just a few days before this one where I spent time admiring the white-tailed sea eagles, watching closely as they adjust their posture before catching fish from the loch with ease. Another memory enters my mind shortly after, a memory far from my homeland, a memory that has stayed with me ever since I was blessed to witness it before my very eyes, this memory was from the Malaysian archive, like Eric Hansen, I have my very own memory of the rainforest’s of Borneo, one’s of fireflies.

I visited Borneo five years ago spending most of that time in a place called Sarawak. Sarawak lies alongside the South China Sea and is home to an area called the Gunung Mulu National Park, a vastly dense area of protected rainforest interior. Inside that interior can be found large cave entrances home to an immensely sized bat colony, one of which is the entrance to the Garden of Eden, a hidden valley enclosed within marble-like limestone cliffs that give you an instant feel of a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. Dark and glossy textured rock smoother the walls within these caves as the eerie silence wrestles with the mind with the only sound coming from the slow dripping droplets of water as they make the cave floor their final destination. The Mulu rainforest is where I spent most of my time in Borneo, and this rainforest, in particular, opened a whole new world to me in finding the true beauty on earth.

This recollection brings me to the highlight of my time in Sarawak. During my stay in Mulu, I had just returned to the chalet after exploring the foot of the rainforest where I came face to face with a green viper and stood amongst giant fig trees, trees that made you feel inadequate and minuscule in the grand scheme of things, a sense of feeling overpowered by the sheer magnitude of the rainforest. Twilight was almost over, and as the rainforest turned the lights off for the evening, I clambered out of the egg shell-like bath, feeling refreshed and refocused after a long soak in lavender-filled bath salts. Boiling up some water I dropped one bag of chamomile tea into the only mug in the room, took a step backward, and sat on the edge of the bed looking straight out onto the balcony through the dark walnut shutters. Five minutes passed and my alarm beeps at me with the flashing of the words ” Chamomile tea ready “, and with tea now brewed, I headed out onto the balcony, reclined the lounger chair, stretched out my legs as far as possible whilst clenching my toes, and gazed at the most mesmerizing of views of the lush green rainforest whilst the balcony ceiling light flickered away before dimming into pure darkness.

I savoured every last drop of the Chamomile, closed my eyes ever so slightly, and then reopened them when I saw another flickering through the corner of my eye. To my amazement, I witnessed a pulsating flash of neon yellow and green that gradually became more and more apparent as every few seconds passed on by. Glowing in complete unison, the rainforest suddenly turned into an extravaganza of firefly activity as the beautiful fairy-like dust transformed my evening into dream reality, without a doubt experiencing one of the most tranquil evenings I have ever had the joy of witnessing.

From experience, reminiscing always helps any mental blockages that become an obstacle in my daily life. I find if I am ever stuck for motivation or my mood takes a sudden nosedive, by simply taking the time to step away from what I am doing at any one time to just sit back and channel positive thoughts from past memories that have been ingrained within me since travelling the world and leaving my comfort zone, I can pick myself out of a mental block and find some new initiative to carry on with tasks in hand. With Breakfast and recollections over, I put my focus firmly on heading back up towards the loch as the clock reads 07:30 am.

The distant calling sound of a white-tailed sea eale tantalizes my senses as I edge ever closer to the end of the road, immediately noticing a cuckoo perched on a small rock, beautifully positioned showing off its distinctive zebra-striped undersides that make up the markings. Barriers of cloud overlap like multiple layers of candy floss joined together in complete harmony, shielding most of the light from this most beautiful vista. I take a look over my left shoulder and see a small break in the cloud give way to a strong beam of light, a final sign maybe? a sign that this morning all desires will be fulfilled. I remove the camera bag from my back, unzip the two compartments protecting my equipment, and set the camera’s exposure, purposely underexposing the image to match the dramatic light that was unfolding. An image definitely worth taking I thought as the light once again fizzled out in quick succession.

Tightening the fastener to the rear of my cap, I stumbled to my feet clutching the tripod mount of the lens, and carried on the journey alongside the loch once more. It wasn’t too long after that I saw patterns emerge in the water, so I quickly detoured off the main road and found a flat area of grass to sit and wait, eyes fixated on that one area of the loch. I placed the bag beside me, unraveled the smooth textured fabric, and pulled out my binoculars. As I unclipped the rubber seals, one slipped from my grasp and rolled towards a narrow channel of small pebbled rocks. Wading frantically through the bundles of seaweed that lay before me, I managed to recover the rubber clip, scramble back towards the grass mound and place my elbows on my knees, and with an urgent careful stare, I began adjusting the focus on the binoculars. Panning left to right in an attempt to retrace my steps, I see no sign at all, no sign of anything apart from empty views of the body of water that was now increasingly picking up pace. More panning as I take a deep breath, just hoping that for all of my patience over the past few days, this encounter soon comes to fruition. To the left of my view, a small buoy remains anchored to the surface, and to the right, a family of Greylag geese remains firmly seated, riding the water’s current like floating ducks in a bathtub.

I take out the Reese peanut butter cups I brought with me from the side pocket of my bag and tear open the bright orange coloured packet. Before I even manage to take the first bite, I just so happen to survey the water yet again, and just then, in that very precise moment in time, I see the flick of a tail plunge below the surface of the loch leaving behind a delicate splash. I needed no invitation, forcing the whole peanut butter cup in my mouth I swiftly lean back and reach over my shoulder, grab the bag, pull out the camera, and twist-lock the lens hood in place. In what felt like a berserk few seconds, I silently tell myself to make the most of this situation as the otter came back to the surface and stretched out like a floating wooden plank. As the otter put on a fabulous display, the brown wet fur glistened in the morning sunlight, and the detailed webbed feet that reminded me of a wingsuit stretched out and acted like a rudder, making it easy for the otter to navigate through the channeled waters of the sea loch.

After watching the otter catch numerous amounts of fish, it began making its way closer to the shoreline. It was from here on I realized that this was a dog otter, a dog otter with the most remarkable of whiskers. His whiskers reminded me of my beard for some strange reason, quickly putting thoughts into my head that for the amount of time I had been out in the wild with just my tent for shelter and not a warm shower to be had, I was beginning to look like Tormund, the rugged-looking ginger wildling from the Game of Thrones. The dog otter came closer and closer and I needed to pick an area to position myself for the best opportunity without disturbing or letting him know about my presence. I decided that for each time he dived back under the water I would have a position in mind where I would then wait for him to come back afloat, simply repeating this exercise as soon as he went back under.

This process carried on for almost ten minutes before I took a gamble on my final position. With the dog otter just now only a few meters from the shore, I could feel the intensity building. A shudder raced through my body as the realization of what could potentially happen next started to sink in. My final pitch found me submerged behind one giant carved-out rock and surrounded by deep trenches of seaweed. Laying so low to the ground, I threw the hood to my jacket over my head, pulled on the cord to fasten it to my cap tightly, and kept one eye closed, the other wide open, firmly fixed looking through the viewfinder. I could taste the salt that was engrained within the copper bronze seaweed, the fabric on my clothing was beginning to soak up more and more water as I became submerged to the rising tide, more and more seaweed washed over me like a deadly snake slowly suffocating its prey, it was very true, I was loving life.

Everything was set for the grand finale, Mr whiskers departed the water for one last time, stood there for a couple of seconds, twitched his nose, and began pacing around up and over rocks like some sort of Olympic athlete. I lie there still, as silent as possible, like a saltwater crocodile waiting for the perfect moment to strike, of course in my terminology, this meant waiting for the best moment to press down the shutter button. No more than 20 feet in front of me, he started going in the opposite direction to where I was. had he seen me? surely not. I was that swamped beneath the seaweed I was rather impressed with my efforts for good camouflage, even Rambo himself would surely think so. That was it I thought, the chance was well and truly gone, I wouldn’t have risked getting up from where I was until I knew he had well and truly disappeared from my view. I was willing to accept defeat in not creating any substantial images today.

That, however, wasn’t to be the case. To my jubilation, his change in direction was only temporary as he then carried on with his antics travelling towards me this time with his shaggy brown fur revealing some incredible detail and texture, beautifully matched with a paler tone of brown underneath his neck. By this point, my boots were full of water and I could feel the water flowing into the sleeves of my jacket before receding afterwards, all I needed now was a pair of armbands in case I was about to be washed away down into the loch and further out to sea. My chest was constantly pounding as I took a deep breath in an attempt to control this intoxicating ride of emotion, just beyond that very rock was a wild dog otter that at any moment, could potentially walk right on by me, leaving me in utter disbelief of witnessing an encounter like no other. A couple of minutes pass, eyes still firmly fixated on the rock, he slowly reveals his prominent whiskers once more finding comfort amongst a bed of seaweed. He steadies himself before vigorously shaking off as much water as possible from the thick brown coat, and there it goes, I fire the shutter in absolute astonishment, face to face with this magnificent mammal. Sure enough, as soon as the card starts to buffer in the camera he pauses for a couple of seconds, and then just wanders on by me as I become fully immersed in his presence, watching his each and every single step as he slowly disappears further along the rocky shoreline and out of sight. I lie there trying to come to terms with what actually just happened, and a huge smile begins to form, extending into the biggest grin imaginable.

The image above took me over five days to accomplish, and as most of you reading this will be aware, achieving great wildlife imagery is a process. The knowledge and understanding of using fieldcraft to your advantage is a good start, alongside developing skills in observing the different behaviours of various animals. Respect for the wildlife must be taken seriously, and this is why in any given circumstance, I will spend time observing these behaviours and understanding a species habits before attempting to create any images.

The 27th of July was an incredible day of wildlife encounters with numerous sightings of a varied list of species. During the late afternoon, I was blessed with more views of the otter, and all the images I managed to capture can be found below. Depending on the situation regarding covid, and my plans still revolving around Africa, there may be a possibility that I will be running otter workshops on the Isle of Mull in 2022, so if this story has ignited a passion for you to witness these remarkable mammals in the wild, why not join me next year by keeping up to date on all of my latest news via my newsletter.

For more wonderful wildlife imagery, why not head on over to my Instagram page and follow me for more of my latest work.

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Looking for captivating wildlife adventure stories? 

Head over to the Dan Palmer Tales on Earth blog for incredible stories from the wild.

Looking for captivating wildlife adventure stories? 

Head over to the Dan Palmer Tales on Earth blog for incredible stories from the wild.