Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

Good Times in Otterville

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In the Field

Good Times in Otterville. Northern Vancouver Island Region, BC, Canada. August 16, 2016.

Fifty years ago this would have been an impossible image to capture ANYWHERE in British Columbia. Why?'s not because we didn't have cameras back then. It's because in 1929 the last sea otter known to be living in BC was shot. Between 1929 and 1969 there were no sea otters at all in BC - none, nada. Then, between 1969 and 1972, 89 sea otters from two sources (Amchitka and Prince William Sound) were re-introduced to a place called Checleset Bay on the west coast of Vancouver Island. And, I'm happy to say, the reintroduction was VERY successful and sea otters have now spread over the northern tip of Vancouver Island onto the eastern side of the island (where this apparently happy otter was photographed) and even (in small numbers) over to the coast of the mainland. And, this past summer, female sea otters with pups were spotted WAY up in Haida Gwaii (AKA the Queen Charlotte Islands). While it's been a few years since there was any kind of credible census done, the BC population of sea otters is likely up to around the 5,000 individual range! at least some's back to Good Times in Otterville!

But don't necessarily expect the continuing expansion of BC's sea otter population to be without controversy. Sea otters are what we biologists call a Keystone Species, which basically means that they punch above their weight in ecological significance. In the case of sea otters, it means that they have a huge impact on the health of kelp forests (with sea otters eating the most voracious consumers of kelp...which is sea urchins). In turn, healthy kelp are extremely valuable to surrounding marine ecosystems - as an example, over 30 species of rock fish depend on kelp forests for at least SOME phase of their life cycle. So...bring back otters and urchin numbers go down, kelp forests thrive, and rock fish (plus a whole lot of other species) benefit.

So why would a rebound in sea otters be controversial? Well...sea otters DO eat a lot of urchins and other shellfish. In the time that sea otters were gone from the BC coast shellfish populations exploded...which lead to the development of a fairly healthy shellfish industry (by humans, of course). Today, many of those involved in this industry grew up without ever seeing or knowing about sea otters - to THEM (and their short human lifespan and living memory...which is about 30x longer than a politician's memory) sea otters are pretty much an "invasive" species that seems destined to deprive them of their livelihood. Try telling a shellfish fisherman that the situation that allowed them to earn a living was actually artificial and an artifact of over a century of over-exploitation of sea otters. Yep, you're right...they're not really going to want to hear that. Life - and conservation issues - are complex. The "Well...during MY lifetime there were no sea otters but LOTS of shellfish" argument isn't easy to get around...or past.

I captured this image using a Nikon D5 paired with a 400mm f2.8E VR plus 2x teleconverter (the TC-20EIII), for a total focal length of 800mm. I was hand-holding the setup from a floating Zodiac and while the water wasn't particularly rough when I shot the image, we (and the otter) were being rolled around by smooth swells. Of course, the otter and our boat weren't moving in it was a HUGE challenge just keeping the subject in the viewfinder. I have to say it was this particular outing where I was blown away (fell in love with?) the new "tight-zone" 9-point Dynamic Area focusing mode that was added in one of the first firmware updates for the D5. Why?'s precise enough to focus JUST where you want (in this case on the otter's nose) but if you or the subject move and you end up "slipping off" the subject with your focus point, the camera still holds the focus. Through the viewfinder it just seems to "stick" to the focus WAY better than simple Single Point focusing. Did I say I love it? ;-)

Here's a larger (2400 pixel) version of this very happy looking sea otter for your perusal:

Good Times in Otterville: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)


1. This image - in all resolutions - is protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of them (including use as desktop backgrounds or screensavers on your own computer), but unauthorized commercial use of the image is prohibited by law. Thanks in advance for respecting my copyright!

2. This image was captured during my "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More" Marine Mammals photo tour in August of 2016. Each year I offer trips into two different parts of the Great Bear Rainforest as well as one to photograph marine mammals and oceanscapes near the northern tip of Vancouver Island. And, in selected years, I also offer photo tours to additional locations to capture other highly sought-after subjects, such as various boreal owl species, fishing grizzlies, and more. Details about these trips can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

3. Like all wildlife images on this website, the subject(s) is/are fully wild and completely unconstrained. Besides the potential impact of my/our presence, nothing has been done to intentionally alter or affect the ongoing behavior of the subject and, of course, there has been no use of any form of bait or other form of wildlife attractants (including vocalizations).

Behind the Camera

Good Times in Otterville. Northern Vancouver Island Region, BC, Canada. August 16, 2016.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 1250.

Nikon D5 paired with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR plus TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter, for a total EFL of 800mm. Hand-held from floating Zodiac. VR on and in "Sport" mode.

1/1250s @ f11; No compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

Good Times in Otterville. Northern Vancouver Island Region, BC, Canada. August 16, 2016.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF using Phase One's Capture One Pro 9.2. Four raw variants (different versions of a single raw capture) processed, with the variants differing in exposure settings (0.5 stop total difference between the variants), white balance settings, shadow/highlight retrieval settings, and in noise reduction settings (yep, this one was a real bear to process!).

Further digital corrections on resulting 16-bit TIFF files using Adobe's Photoshop CC 2015 and Light Crafts Lightzone. Photoshop adjustments included compositing (blending) of the four output files from the raw converter, minor exposure and colour saturation tweaks, selective application of photo filters, and final selective sharpening for web output. Final tone-tweaking performed using LightZone's "tonemapper" tool.


Good Times in Otterville. Northern Vancouver Island Region, BC, Canada. August 16, 2016.

Ten percent of the revenue generated by this image will be donated to Raincoast*.

Species Status in Canada**: Special Concern (April 2007) - protected off the North American coast since 1911.

Back in the late 1800's and early 1900's the Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) was hunted to near extinction along both the Asian and North American Pacific Coasts. The reason? It's luxuriant coat. Otters are unlike any other aquatic mammal in that they don't use fat or blubber to insulate themselves from the chilling effects of the water they are found in. Instead, they rely on their amazingly thick fur coat for insulation. Their amazing coats have a higher density of hair (up to 150,000 strands of hair per square cm!) than any other animal in existence today. To ensure that this coat serves its insulative purpose, otters spend a disproportionately large amount of time grooming their coat (to ensure its natural oils continue to provide an effective waterproof barrier). Unfortunately, the biological functioning of the otters coat can be easily fouled by contamination by oil and other hydrocarbons - thus making them extremely sensitive to the effective of marine oil spills.

Other fascinating aspects of the biology and behaviour of the sea otter include the use of tools (they will use rocks to break apart shellfish such as sea urchins), and the fact that they have an metabolic rate two to three times higher than other mammals of their size. This means they must eat 23% to 33% of their own body weight DAILY, just to to replace the calories burned through maintaining their body temperature in the cold water environment they live in.

*The Raincoast Conservation Society (and Foundation) is an effective and efficient organization that has been fighting for protection of this unique habitat. If you are looking for a meaningful way to contribute to the conservation of this amazing ecosystem, Raincoast will provide maximal "bang" for your conservation dollars.

**as determined by COSEWIC: The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada