Capturing wild sea otters on film can be an essential tool for inspiring awareness and stewardship of this unique and charismatic marine mammal. Sea otter photographers can share their savvy by including information about their location relative to the otter ("I was on shore 100 yards away"), the focal length of the lens used, and confirmation that they did not disrupt the sea otters' behavior in any way. Be a storyteller: how does your image showcase sea otter natural history, ecology, or conservation? What was your story behind the capture of this photo? Here are some of our favorite savvy photographers who really give a voice to sea otters through their images:
"This photo depicts a mother sea otter sharing food with her young pup in Moss Landing Harbor, California. The prey item is the soft tissue of a large clam (shell has already been discarded). I was on shore, seated among the rocks and vegetation, at a distance of approximately 100 ft. Because I knew this specific area was a favorite feeding ground of local sea otters, I set up here when no otters were around, content to photograph snowy egrets and willets while I waited patiently. Before long, this mom and pup showed up and began to feed. Technical details: Canon 5D mark II and a 100-400mm lens, shot at 400mm, handheld, cropped in post-processing." - Joe
Jeff & Wendy Photography
"We had been observing and photographing this sea otter mother and pup for quite a while. The tide was going out, so our kayak drifted within 55-60 feet of these otters. We took few more quick shots before back paddling not wanting to disturb their slumber. We loved having the opportunity to sit quietly in our kayak and observe a mother sea otter and her pup sleeping so peacefully. A kayak allows you to sit low in the water so you can capture a more intimate perspective of sea otter behavior-best of all a kayak does not have a motor! We maintain our distance and orientation while photographing by using a tandem kayak with one of us always on paddle duty. The image was taken with a Canon 5D Mark IV and 100-400mm lens and was cropped." - Jeff and Wendy
"This image was unexpected — the way some of our best wildlife experiences tend to be. I was sitting on a beach in Monterey Bay, photographing godwits and plovers along the shoreline. It was my favorite kind of day: cold with a bit of overcast and diffused light. The cool weather tends to keep beach goers away, providing more chances to photograph shorebirds undisturbed. In my periphery, I saw two shapes bobbing and diving in the surf, and the movements seemed much more otter-like than sea lion. A look through my lens confirmed those telltale faces and postures. I normally come across sea otters in the calmer water bodies, so I was delighted to see them foraging and dining in these churning waves — a photographic first for me. I use an Olympus mirrorless camera — EM1 Mark II with an m.zuiko 300mm f/4.0 lens (600mm equivalent)" - Ingrid
"I took this photo at the sea otter nursery in Morro Bay at the south T-pier. At some times of year, the harbor's sea otters gather in between this public pier and walkway. They take little notice of people as long as they're quiet. I was in the viewing area approximately 30 feet from the otters in the water below. The camera I used was a Canon SX50 with a 1200mm zoom and the photo is slightly cropped. This little fluffy pup was just floating close to its mom as she spent some time grooming herself. It was just a sweet moment to observe." - Linda
A hungry sea otter dives for prey in the kelp forest at Asilomar
Location: Asilomar State Marine Reserve
Distance: ~300 ft
Lens: Canon EF 100-400 mm,
"This photo was taken in the Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, CA. I was sitting on the rocks of the jetty enjoying watching the otters dive down to catch food. I was about 25 yards away from this otter, but it was undisturbed by my presence because I was sitting tucked away on the rocks. I took this photo using a 300mm lens, which gave me the reach to capture this otter from far away. This image is special to me because I can distinctly remember the sound of the crunch on that fresh bright red kelp crab. This was a fun day to shoot because there was a big bloom of phytoplankton called cocolithophores which made the water a very beautiful light blue color. This happens because the skeletons of the plankton are made of calcium carbonate which scatters more light than they absorb, causing the water to be brighter. It made for the most tropical looking otter photo I have ever taken to this day!" - Jenni
"Three's company! While kayaking out in the Monterey Bay, I spotted a raft of sea otters nestled in a kelp forest resting. For otters, keeping warm is a lot of work. Without a layer of blubber to insulate them, they rely on their thick fur and caloric intake to help keep themselves warm enough. That's why otters need to consume about 25% of their body weight in food every day! All that foraging, grooming, and calorie burning takes a ton of energy, which is why otters nap quite often to conserve energy. As they nap, otters will often wrap themselves up in kelp to prevent drifting off in the ocean currents. In order to respect the nap and prevent disturbing these sleeping otters, I captured this image from over 100 feet away using a 400mm lens and cropping the image to better show the subjects" - Emily
The tips every Sea Otter Savvy photographer knows:
- Keep your distance. Do not "close the distance" beyond 60 feet. Use your zoom for the perfect close up (and share your focal length with the image).
- Stay still and quiet and let the otters pass by while doing their own thing -- foraging, swimming, etc.
- Do your research. Learn the best locations and times to observe sea otters. Understanding their behavior help you avoid disturbance and write the best caption stories!
- Photograph from shore. Sea otters tend to be less disturbed by people on shore than those approaching from the water.
- Resist the urge to favor "eye contact" images. Let's put this anthropocentric wildlife photography standard to rest together!
- Read more tips from Eco Exposure Photography
Would you like to be featured here? Tag @SeaOtterSavvy on your sea otter photos on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. We will provide honest, private feedback on photos in which we have been tagged, and we may recruit you to our team of Sea Otter Savvy Photographers!
Top left: Savvy! Top right: Not savvy; all otters alert to the camera. Bottom left: Savvy and respecting the nap! Bottom right: Not savvy; alert and ready to flee the approaching photographer.Sea otters are a popular subject for photography and video. In the age of the internet, images depicting sea otters in both wild and captive settings are easy to find, like, and share. At Sea Otter Savvy we encourage enjoyment of the many wonderful images of sea otters, but with a healthy dose of awareness and scrutiny.
We love to see images of animals of all kinds looking at us---eye contact from the subject being standard for portraits that seem to engage the viewer in the moment. With sea otters, it is difficult to know whether that eye contact was a lucky moment caught with a telephoto lens, or the result of the sea otter noticing the photographer’s presence. While a gaze turned toward a photographer does not itself constitute a disturbance, it does shift the subject of the image away from natural behavior to a snapshot of a reaction to the presence of a human.
More troubling than images depicting eye contact, are those showing the sea otter actively moving to avoid something in the direction of the camera---first raising their head and body high in the water (an alert behavior known as periscoping), then swimming or diving away. While we often can’t be certain the photographer caused the disturbance, we can turn a discerning eye to suspicious images.
By keeping your distance and using telephoto lenses, you will be rewarded with photos of natural behavior.Evaluate photos of wildlife critically. Ask yourself, “Does this depict behavior caused by the presence and behavior of the photographer?” Do your part by sharing, posting or liking only photographs or videos that depict natural behavior and have no appearance of disturbance by the photographer. Has the photographer shared information about the circumstances of taking the photo?
How can you tell a photo that’s sea otter savvy, from one that may have resulted from disturbance? Here are some tips:
1. Is the sea otter’s head, paws, and/or body raised high out of the water (periscoping)? If yes, then...
2. Does the sea otter have both eyes focused on the camera?
3. Is there evidence of movement away from the camera (e.g. does the otter have a wake)?
At Sea Otter Savvy, we take many of our own photos. Learn more:
We give them space.
We take pictures from shore or at least 5 kayak lengths from the otters and always use our zoom. No photo is ever worth disrupting their behavior.
Gena uses a Nikon Coolpix P900.
"My camera has a masterful zoom to 83X magnification. I am always telling everyone, the best way to photograph sea otters is to find a spot on shore where they will not notice you, then be quiet, patient, and observant."
Heather uses a Canon EOS 7D.
"I love using my Canon with a 400mm, but I also have used my iphone through high powered scope or binoculars from viewing platforms. Both deliver excellent images and a way for me to view and capture unique behaviors while maintaining the recommended distance for sea otters (over 60ft)."
Attention kept on otter things.
Even if captured incidentally, we refrain posting photos showing sea otter eye contact with the camera. Our story will always be about them, not us.
Practice identifying photos that are sea otter savvy by taking our quiz. All images in this quiz are used with permission. Click START: