The Sultans of Streams

Not long ago Britain’s otters were all but wiped out by chemicals leaching into rivers. They’ve made a comeback.

By Adam Nicolson
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James

“I am hunting otters with Charlie, the two of us in wet suits, our bodies submerged, level with the sea. The tankers are sliding in toward the piers and gas flares of the oil terminal at Sullom Voe. This is Shetland, at the far northern tip of the British Isles. Helicopters from the North Sea rigs clatter into the airport behind us, but they seem a world away.

Charlie Hamilton James has been photographing British otters ever since he fell in love with them during their decline some decades ago, and has followed them obsessively as they have made their way back to health. He knows how to stalk an otter and has told me the technique: Your face as low in the water as it can go, neoprene helmet well down, and quiet—no whispering (gestures better), your breath quiet, your fins quiet, and if you’re lucky, you might get near one.

Tiny flatfish move away from our feet in the shallows. Two seals come to inspect us, goggle-eyes, fat submarine bodies. But the otter we thought was here, which an hour ago was a distant three-part silhouette in the binoculars, a disc of a head, the arched back, a long strong tail, or as it is beautifully called, the rudder, is nowhere to be seen. Male otters display like this, with the rudder prominent, in a kind of swaggering signal to other otters that this is their territory. We look and wait while the cold seeps into the bones.”

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