For years, I’ve been on a mission to find otters in the wild. In Maine, they’re fairly common critters, but for some reason, no matter how much time I spend outdoors, I never see them.
I’ve seen their poop, shining with silver fish scales. I’ve seen the slides they form when slipping down a muddy bank. But those famously playful animals have always eluded me.
That is, until last week.
In a true act of kindness, an acquaintance tipped me off to a group of river otters they’d recently seen swimming in a pond near the coast. (I may have whined about my otter-less life a few times on the internet, and they may have taken notice.)
I knew the pond, and I knew the trail leading to it. I’d been there before. Still, I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Wildlife moves around. It’s predictable only to a point. So, as I set off on the hike, I told myself to be happy with any animal I managed to find.
I first encountered a white-tailed deer. As I rounded a bend, it bounded off the trail and into the woods. Then I saw a beaver. Crouched on a thin sheet of ice, it nibbled on vegetation and paid me no mind.
Mallard ducks swam along the shore, their green heads shining in the afternoon light. Nearby, a lone Canada goose stood on a pocket of ice. It was strange to see the bird without any companions. I hoped it was OK.
I made it to my destination, and the otters were nowhere to be found. The sun was sinking fast. But I held out hope. Consulting a map, I decided to visit a couple of nearby ponds. I had a headlamp on me if I needed it. Plus, I’d read that otters tend to be most active at night, and at dawn and dusk.
Pink and orange bled across the sky as the sun dipped behind the trees. The temperature was rapidly dropping, the light fading. Then came a splash.
In the gloom of dusk, I saw them — three otters swimming through the frigid water of a small pond. Their long, sleek bodies snaked through the water. I watched with wonder as they pulled themselves up onto a grassy bank. Then, all three turned in my direction, heads pivoting on long necks like periscopes.
Not wanting to bother them, I backed away and sat on a rock. Through the lens of my camera, I could see their whiskered faces clearly as they slid back into the water.
One thing I noticed straight away: They were fast. Faster than the beavers and muskrats I so often see swimming in Maine’s rivers, lakes and ponds. According to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, river otters can swim up to 8 mph, which is about as fast as the average male human can run. What’s more, on land, they can run up to 15 mph.
Two of the otters seemed to stick close together, even in the water, while the other seemed more independent. I sat there for several minutes, just watching them swim. But daylight was fading fast. With what I’m sure was a wistful sigh, I returned to the trail and headed out of the woods.
The experience was everything I’d dreamed, albeit a bit brief.
So, why river otters? What’s the big deal? Honestly, I just think they’re cool. Among the ranks of “charismatic megafauna,” otters are right up there with puffins and baby bears, in my opinion.
They’re cute. They even sound cute. They chirp, grunt, growl, buzz, whistle, squeak and chuckle.
A member of the weasel family, the river otter has short legs and webbed feet that help it swim. It’s relatively large at 3 to 4 feet long. And it’s muscular, with a long, strong tail that helps propel it through the water.
There are multiple types of otters in the world, but in Maine, we only have one species: the North American river otter. Sometimes you’ll see them swimming in the ocean, but that doesn’t make them sea otters — that’s a different species, and it’s not found on the East Coast.
In Maine, river otters have a healthy population. They’re well suited for the cold climate, with protective fur that helps them stay warm. In fact, they’re sometimes found playing around on the ice during the winter.
While they’re often described as playful, that doesn’t mean they’re interested in being around humans.
“[Otters] are usually shy, inconspicuous creatures that are rarely seen even though they are active throughout the year,” according to a fact sheet on the species provided online by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
So, maybe it’s not so unusual that I hadn’t spotted one until recently.
Of course, now that I’ve finally seen otters in the wild, I want to see them again, perhaps when I have better lighting to take photos. Yet there’s a fine line between observing wildlife and harassing it. I certainly don’t want to disturb any animal while it’s trying to rest or hunt for food.
Keeping a respectful distance is crucial.
If there’s an animal you’ve been wanting to see in the wild, I suggest trying to make it happen. (In a responsible way, of course.) It’s such a thrill when you finally set your eyes on that creature in its natural habitat.