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Otters never fail to please and charm human observers. Michael Ellis takes a look at the playful, popular creature.

Lately I’ve had a lot of magnificent contact with otters. Biologists believe that the more animals play as adults, the higher their innate intelligence. If so, otters must be in the Mensa group, because they really know how to have a good time and are so much fun to watch.

I spent a month recently in Brazil’s Pantanal, the largest interior wetland in the world, and had many opportunities to watch playful giant otters. This is the largest of the 13 species found worldwide and the most vocal and social. They have extended family groups and like all otters are supreme predators. In Brazil we also saw a few smaller, solitary otters, like the neotropical otter. Earlier this summer while kayaking in Monterey Bay, I watched sea otters foraging for food and even using tools. This is the only one of the otters that is totally adapted to a marine existence.

But the species that has warmed the heart of conservationists, especially here in the Bay Area, is the North American river otter. Once severely hunted for its fine, thick fur, and suffering high mortality from pollution and a reduction in prey, the number of otters plummeted. But in recent years, with no direct help from humans, otters have begun to return.

Many of you might remember Sutro Sam, the male otter who frequented the pools at Sutro Baths in 2013 eating the released goldfish much to the delight of residents and tourists alike. Sam was the first otter seen in San Francisco in many decades and most likely swam the Golden Gate from Marin. Once the fish were gone, he disappeared.


At Las Gallinas sewer ponds in San Rafael, Grizzly Island near Fairfield, and Rodeo Lagoon in the Marin Headlands you can be almost guaranteed to see river otters. In this time of ecological devastation it's wonderful to have some good news. Our resident species is thriving in part because of environmental regulations governing water quality. Fish have come back; followed shortly by the predators.

So, you otter go see them.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips worldwide. He lives in Santa Rosa.