It's seven AM, I am standing on the rivers edge with my paddle in hand, slowly pushing the kayak into the emerald blue water. The birds are up as well. As I listen to their beautiful songs, I take a deep breath to fill my lungs with the clean air surrounding me. Once again, I remind myself I am not dreaming, this is real. In a combination of pure luck, divine intervention and a dash of manifestation, I find myself sharing my home with this beautiful river and one of my favorite freshwater creatures, the river otter. My car has been parked in my driveway almost every single weekend since I moved here. It used to be on the road, chasing one Florida spring location after another just a few months ago, at times driving 3 hours each way. The river has casted a spell on me that I am incapable of escaping...but why would I even want to escape ?
As my feet touch the water I listen to any sign of other humans...but there is none. A kingfisher is perched on a branch, just as I stand still to watch him, he launches himself into the water, then flying off into the distance making an uplifting cheery sound only a kingfisher knows how to do.
Watching a pale white egret gracefully float through the air, a cormorant drifting by, looking at me with his spring-colored blue eyes and observing a male bass protecting it's offspring from sunfish and a tiny loggerhead musk turtle underwater are the reasons why I love this river. These waters nourish so many animals...as well as my soul.
Many people seek the river for recreation purposes. It's a hot spot during humid, scorching summer days. Snorkeling, paddle boarding, kayaking, tubing, diving, boating - the river endures it all. Yet, I wonder how many people love it just for the fact that it is so vital for all the creatures surrounding it, above and below? The river does not care if it's the strongest or largest river or who sees it, it has no ego, it simply flows, nourishing everything around it. What if the whole world could exist like this?
Once I moved here I made a sincere pact with the river. I promised to help anyway I could. I did not want to be part of the problem, I did not want to cause more harm.
I promised the river not to be another foot trampling on, ripping out it's eelgrass, I promised to pick up litter that was left behind, I swore not to leave it's creatures in distress and aimed to seek relationships with people feeling as compassionate about the river as I do.
Floating gently down this beautiful waterway, watching a turtle glide through the swaying eelgrass underneath me is simultaneously soothing and exhilarating. Each time the river reveals new sights and sounds. Hopefully it will be an otter family this morning.
As my paddle touches the water surface, my eyes are searching for them stirring through the water with their tail.
Otters spend part of their time on land, sometimes seen marking their territory with a pair of scent glands at the base of their tail. Most of their hunting is done underwater as their bodies are fully adapted to life in rivers, streams, marshes, lakes as well as saltwater estuaries. Stiff whiskers (vibrissae) around their faces help them feel vibrations caused by swimming prey. Fluffing their fur with their paws to trap air helps to keep them warm.
My ears have grown more sensitive to hearing the crunching noises of crayfish when they fall prey to the "water weasels". At times I do not see the otters but can hear them devouring their food. In my recent encounters I have almost felt as if they are starting to recognize me due to passive observation and lots of patience. My hope is that they are learning that I come in peace to capture images of their lives. Young otters, just like children, seem to be less afraid and more curious and often times come much closer to my kayak. Maybe it's because their perception of innocence about humans is still intact.
It is always an uplifting moment to win a prize for a photograph, but being accepted by wild creatures is unlike anything else and incredibly humbling and impossible to compare to anything else.
If these otters let you be part of their morning swim after they were extensively hunted, it carries a scent of forgiveness onto you. Unfortunately, still to this day it is legal to trap river otters in 38 states and 20 000 to 30 000 creatures are killed each year for their pelts. Numbers I simply can't comprehend and are heartbreaking.
So when I drift down the water and see families of them, it fills my heart with immense joy, knowing they are somewhat safe here. It is also a health indication of the water since otters are sensitive to pollutants.
Within a half hour of my drift downstream, I see little heads bobbing in and out of the water, quickly swimming back and forth, their little noises undeniable and the crunching sounds unmistakable. In slow motion I pull my paddle into the kayak and reach for my camera while telling myself to stay calm to avoid scaring this family off. The advantage of floating downstream is that the current slowly moves my kayak to them. Photography ethics are a highly important skill that make the difference in moments like these. Wildlife, regardless of what kind, picks up on being "targeted". So I pretend not to see them, point my camera in the opposite direction to show them I have no interest in interfering with them. The otters quickly redirect their attention to hunting for more crayfish and playfighting. I slowly turn around as my kayak is now close enough to them that I hear this family talk to each other much louder. Their high-pitched chirps, whistles and grunting right beside me. I hold my breath as my finger pushes the shutter button. Seconds of bliss...my heart pounding out of my chest. They stayed through the shutter noise, one baby otter got so close I felt a few water drops from his splashes. As I lower the lens, I know what I just encountered will last forever in my mind. Part of me wants to tell them how excited I am to see them here, how adorable their children are and how happy I am the river is healthy enough for them to live here. I refrain and use the language that is best fit for these type of encounters: silence. The otter family sticks around but I decide to move on to not overstay my welcome.
Native American folklore placed the otter as one of the animals sent down to the bottom of the water to find earth, upon which all seeds of life are then planted.
I know they have planted the seeds of compassion for this river for me and hope I will get to spread them.
Here are some ways to support otters:
-Join and support organizations that are focused on keeping Florida's waters healthy such as the Florida Springs Council, The Florida Springs Institute, Rainbow River Conservation, Florida Wildlife Corridor, Alachua Conservation Trust, Itchetucknee Springs Alliance, Friends of Chassahowitzka, etc.
-Be part of the solution. Do not litter, keep your feet and fins up when swimming. Avoid boating in small rivers as props and motors can cause significant damage
-Do not harass or feed wildlife
-Spread the word of how we need to protect our springs
-Create fundraisers, donate
- Follow organizations on social media for updates and learning material