How to Photograph Sea Otters
I was born and raised in Monterey, California, USA, and southern sea otters are a staple of the culture here. They are charismatic creatures and, as a result, many wildlife photographers hope to capture the perfect shot of these animals.
I have been photographing and researching southern sea otters in Monterey Bay for the past few years, and have accrued some tips and tricks for capturing these animals on camera without disturbing their natural behaviour.
Background information about sea otters
Sea otters are a keystone species, meaning that they have a disproportionately large impact on their environment in comparison to their population size.
They contribute to the stability and balance in their ecosystem as a top predator. Unfortunately, they were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 1900s due to their dense fur (approximately 1 million hairs per square inch).
Numbers have slowly increased, as a small number of sea otters escaped the fur trade off the coast of Russia, western Alaska, and California. Populations have recovered from these locations, but have not reached their historic numbers.
The importance of understanding behaviour
When talking about photographing sea otters, I always discuss some of the history of the species, as it is critically important to understand their importance when deciding to use them as a subject for photography. I believe it is important to capture the essence of a wild animal, and to create appreciation for the animal through your work.
Here are two questions I ask myself to make sure I am capturing the essence of the animal that I am trying to photograph:
- Am I sure I understand the main behaviours of the animal, meaning that I can identify whether an animal is acting naturally, or if it is disturbed by my presence?
- How close is too close for this animal? Should I be hidden?
For sea otters, understanding their behaviour is key. Sea otters are easily disturbed, as they have good hearing, a keen sense of smell, and great eyesight both above and underneath the water.
In fact, many photos of sea otters that you may have seen are actually photos of otters being disturbed. That wide-eyed, head out of the water, eye-contact look that is common amongst sea otter photos is often a sign of disturbance.
On the contrary, when a sea otter is exhibiting natural behaviours, you will notice them diving, sleeping, eating, grooming, interacting with each other, and swimming. Capturing a photo of these behaviours creates an incredibly compelling image.
Bearing in mind that sea otters are easily scared, if you are trying to photograph a sea otter, you should keep at least 50 feet of distance between you and the animal. If you follow this rule, you will more likely be able to capture its natural behaviour. Additionally, every disturbance to these mammals can have a negative impact on their health.
Sea otters eat about 25% of their body weight in food every day (for comparison, humans eat about 2-4% of their body weight each day). If they are unable to eat, they cannot sustain themselves or keep themselves warm. Keep this in mind when you set out to photograph sea otters!
Where to photograph sea otters
Now that you know a bit about the history of sea otters and their behaviour, let’s dive into where you can find these creatures.
Sea otters only live in a small portion of their historic range, which unfortunately means that the regions where you can photograph them are rather limited. Southern sea otters, which live in California, currently range from Half Moon Bay to Coal Oil Point near Santa Barbara.
Northern sea otters live along the coast of Washington and Alaska. Russian otters can be found in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Russia and Japan.
Sea otters spend most of their lives in the water, although they will occasionally haul out on land. While resting, they will float on the surface of the water on their backs, sometimes wrapping themselves in kelp.
On the other hand, they become very active when eating, diving frequently to hunt for their prey. Since they typically spend their time in the water close to shore, it is possible to photograph them from land. In fact, this is where I do the majority of my sea otter photography.
If you hope to spot a sea otter, searching somewhere abundant in kelp or eelgrass is a good place to start. For example, Elkhorn Slough, California is an ideal place to spot a sea otter, as it is abundant with food, kelp, and eelgrass.
However, you can find them along the coast just about anywhere in Monterey, California, if you are lucky! Listen closely for loud crunching, as you may be hearing the sound of a sea otter breaking open a clam or mussel.
Sea otters are a social species, and it is common to find them hanging out in groups, especially when they are resting. This is called a raft: a group of sea otters resting together, typically on the surface of a kelp bed or eelgrass. However, you can also spot them alone, especially adult males (who travel greater distances than females).
When to photograph sea otters
Although you may be able to spot a sea otter at any time of the day, I have found that the best time to photograph them is early in the morning. They are active in the morning, and have not been scared away by human recreation (kayaks, boats, fishing, etc.) at this time.
Once you find a location with sea otters, return to that same location a few mornings in a row, and you will be sure to get some exciting shots.
As for the best time of year, you can spot these animals all year round. Additionally, there is no specific time of year for sea otters to give birth so, if you are lucky, you could spot a mother and pup any time of the year!
Technical tips for photographing sea otters
Here are some of my top technical tips to help you photograph sea otters.
Ideal gear and settings
When photographing sea otters from shore, it is vital to use a DSLR and telephoto lens. If you try to get close enough to capture a photo of them with a wide-angle lens, you will inevitably scare them away. I always use a telephoto lens, typically one that is 100mm-400mm. A 600mm lens works well too.
2. Shutter speed
I suggest using a quick shutter speed. If your camera has a silent mode, that is best. I typically use anything between 1/800- 1/2000th of a second, depending on the availability of light and how quickly the otter is moving.
Read more: What are Shutter Speed and Aperture?
Sea otters do not have a great deal of depth between their noses and their eyes, which means that you can use a fairly small aperture. I usually hover between f/4.5- f/6 for single otters, and use a larger depth of field of f/7- f/9 for a mother and pup or a raft of otters.
Since you may find yourself lying on the ground or moving around a bit to find the sea otters, I do not suggest using a tripod. Use your hands or a rock to stabilise your lens.
When capturing photos of sea otters, it is best to position yourself low to the ground or the ocean. The closer you can be to eye-level with the animal, the more compelling your photograph will be. That being said, the ideal position would be hidden from the otter’s sight and on eye-level.
Of course, this is not always possible. So, if you cannot hide, at least make sure you are low to the ground, and far enough away that you do not startle them. Otters can sense quick movements so, if you are in eyesight, make sure you move slowly.
I often find myself lying in the sand, on a dock, or in a convoluted position amongst some rocks. These are the places where you can capture the best photos!
Best of luck with your photography!
Photographing sea otters is an incredibly fun experience. Don’t get discouraged if you are not able to capture a great shot right away, as capturing these animals takes time. I hope you have a wonderful time out in the field!
One last parting tip: as you head out into the field, listen out for any high-pitched squeaks. These may be a sign that a mother sea otter and her pup are nearby. Listen closely and wait patiently!
I hope you get some great shots. Tag me in your sea otter photos on Instagram @seawithmorgan, I would love to see them.