A GOLDEN HOUR WITH A HARBOR OTTER / by Matt Clysdale

Wildlife photographers long for those magic moments when everything aligns just beautifully: the animal is real close but not disturbed, the light is golden, the setting and environment is interesting, and the animal is actually doing something, something other than standing or sleeping (although that is arguably doing something).

Well, one such magic moment emerged on the 11th hour of my recent trip to the beautiful California Coast. It happened with an endangered Sea Otter, an animal I'd never seen or photographed before, AND, it occurred at a marina, making it an animal living around humans - a recurring theme for me.

In addition to dozens of California Sea Lions, a handful of Otters were living in and around the marina at Moss Landing, at the mouth of the renowned Elkhorn Slough. An earlier outing with Elkhorn Slough Safari, clued me in to the sea lions lounging on the docks and some busy otters feeding around the marina. In particular, it was some Otters harvesting mussels next to an older fishing boat that really caught my eye. The boat had a beautiful patina of peeling paint and rust, making it a lush backdrop for photographing the otters. I went back later in the day to fully seize the opportunity. 

One added bonus to my session was a completely unexpected behavior (on my part) from these two Otters. Sea Otters are unique in being one of the very few mammals, other than primates, to use tools. They regularly use rocks on their bellies to crack open clams, mollusks and shell fish, all well documented on film and in photos. But what utterly amazed me--and alarmed me the first time I heard it--was seeing this pair of otters slamming their mussels against the hull of the boat; a couple of forceful whacks on a stubborn shell, and suddenly that golden flesh was entirely within reach. It was brilliant - and LOUD!

After nearly an hour of this, satiated on dozens of mussels, the Otters finally moved on to a different part of the marina. I was left with scores of great shots, all shot in golden sunlight, making it a truly golden hour for me and those California Sea Otters.