Mist slowly rises over the crystal-clear turquoise blue water while turtles swim among swaying eelgrass underneath the surface. A few bass drift in. As the first sunlight illuminates cypress trees on the riverbank, the drumming of woodpeckers and raspy calls of kingfishers serenade the new day.
The peaceful scene is filled with sounds of various wildlife, including one unlike any other: the crunching noise of crayfish being devoured by river otters. As a kayak glides through the water, three little heads appear in the distance, bobbing up and down. Suddenly a tail flips up in the air. Then the crunching is heard again. It is breakfast time in the world of the mustelids.
Otters are excellent swimmers thanks to their powerful tail and webbed feet. They can swim at a speed of up to 7 miles per hour. Their long whiskers, also called vibrissae, are extremely sensitive to vibrations in the water which helps them detect prey. Otters base their home upon food availability which are rivers, lakes, ponds and wetlands. Their food mostly consists of fish, turtles, insects and crustaceans, as well as crayfish which are the easiest to catch.
Each day otters have to eat 15-20% of their body weight in order to be properly nourished. More than half their time is spent hunting for food due to their high metabolism. This is one good example of why it is so important to observe them from a distance so they can hunt without interruption.
It is my experience that wildlife shows a lot more interaction if it doesn’t feel threatened. One of my tricks is to act as if I am not aware of them, to look distracted, to simply drift without any sudden movements so they can get used to my presence. Once I see the otters are comfortable enough, I slowly pull out my camera to capture the moment. This however, does not always happen. There are plenty of opportunities that I purposely missed because the otters simply didn’t seem to be in the mood for company. I kept on paddling rather than force myself into their world.
The reward is to eventually have a heartwarming encounter like I did when a curious baby swam right up to me and when a family of otters fully accepted me documenting them playing, grooming and cuddling while they were on land one day. I truly believe our respect for them results in their acceptance of us.
Otters are rather vocal and use different sounds based on the situation. These range from chirping to communicate with others to huffing when confronted by humans.
Another interesting way of communication is using their scent glands at foraging locations to let other otters know that this already serves as a feeding ground and food might be not as plentiful.
Unfortunately, humans weren’t always smitten by the charismatic otters, but driven by money for their pelts.
Otters have endured more suffering from civilization than most mammals. They were relentlessly killed by the thousands for their fur starting in the 1500's. From 1821 to 1891 as many as half a million otters were slaughtered, leading to a complete extinction in some states.
Their suffering didn’t end there. Water pollution wrapped its deadly hands around the throat of the otter population when chemicals were unconsciously dumped into waterways. Pesticides and fertilizers were mass produced and ended up being absorbed directly and indirectly by otters.
Another environmental attack came along in the 20th century when many swamps and marshes were drained and turned into farms and towns. Half of all the wetlands in the United States were lost by the middle of the 20th century, eliminating much habitat for wildlife.
All these threats created a very grim future for otters.
Luckily people began to understand the negative impact of water pollution on themselves as well as otters, and the importance of water conservation.
Mass use of chemicals received another look. DDT was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency following the Clean Water Act in 1972.
Habitat restoration began thanks to scientists and conservationists raising awareness of the importance of wetlands. The Nature Conservancy joined the effort of restoration by purchasing 865 000 acres in the United States.
Although destruction did not end completely, such efforts fostered attempts at reintroduction. Colorado was the first state to bring back river otters in 1976. Other states followed. Otters returned to some after an absence of 50 years.
One thing about nature is its admirable resilience. Another good thing is humans realizing their errors and attempting to reverse the damage. Although it is unlikely the number of otters will ever rebound to what they were before hunting began, it is a heart-warming story of hope.
One of the most beautiful moments while kayaking Florida's rivers is encountering otters. I can’t help but feel that being sometimes approached by these charismatic animals carries a hint of forgiveness towards us humans. Although these encounters are rare and short lived, I always carry a smile and silent thank you on my lips.
If you love otters and want to support a healthy population, please consider these guidelines:
· Don't be a litter bug
· Never feed animals – they get the nutrition they need on their own.
· Do not chase after wildlife
· Limit fertilizer and pesticide use
· Plant native vegetation to benefit native animals rather than exotic vegetation.
· Watch your water consumption
· Remain in designated areas when visiting parks so as not to degrade important wildlife habitat.
· Support local nonprofit organizations such as Rainbow River Conservation, Friends of
Chassahowitzka or the Ichetucknee Springs Alliance that work hard to protect otter habitats
· Educate others how they can make a difference
Source: North American River Otters by John E. Becker
Otters ecology, behavior and conservation by Hans Krukk