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Ten years past

Dec. 7th, 2017 | 09:03 am

After studying the behavior of the river otters of Trinidad Bay, California, for a quarter of a century, I saw my last otter there ten years ago today.

I guess I'm supposed to say something like, "It doesn't seem that long ago," but it really does feel as though it's been much longer than a decade. Seems more like a lifetime has passed since then, actually...

It ended so spectacularly badly, is it any wonder I've shoved it all to the back of my mind? It was literally a lutrine Shakespearean tragedy: treachery layered upon treachery, murder after murder of innocents, and in the end, all of the players – heroine and villainesses alike – died. Only I – the audience of the generations-long performance – was spared death, leaving the theatre haunted by a Cassandra-like story that no one else could possibly believe.

Occasionally, someone will say to me, "You should write a book about the otters." I always shake my head no. Why? Because I know it would be a wasted effort. Witness: my otter website – which does tell at least the happy parts of the story – gets almost no traffic, despite it having been online for seventeen years. My email address is on every page, but can you guess how many emails I've gotten this past year inquiring about my study, which was the longest and most thorough of its kind in the history of science? ZERO, down from a grand total of two emails the year before.

So why should I write a book on a subject that is obviously of no interest to anyone? I already feel like I threw away twenty-five years of my life for nothing. No. I will not waste any more of whatever time I may still have left, and furthermore, mostly for the otters' sake, I intend to take all of their dark, dirty secrets to my grave.


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Jul. 11th, 2013 | 01:19 am

Saw otters last night at Trinidad for the first time in 23 months. What made the evening doubly special was that I was there to meet up with the fellow who first introduced me to Trinidad 31 years ago: Kent Reeves. He and his wife Heidi both looked terrific. As icing on the cake, also there was my first major professor at Humboldt State: Dr. Archie Mossman, and his wife, Dr. Sue Lee. It was quite a reunion!

Before the meetup, I got to see two otters: first, a young adult male, and then briefly an adult female made an appearance. I took some video of an aggressive encounter between the two. It was just like the old days: tussling, screaming, then the one who was attacked (the male) treading water and making a lot of splashing and fuss. Some things never change! I haven't watched the video yet; if it's any good I'll edit this post and embed it here later on.

Although otters aren't a part of my life anymore, I still have dreams fairly often in which I'm studying them. I do miss that, I must admit. I don't miss the heartache, though. All those losses from years ago are still significantly impacting me and my life. The tragic way things ended pretty much destroyed me. I don't think I'll ever be quite the same person as I was back then.


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A time to mourn

Jun. 5th, 2013 | 06:41 pm

I suppose I should go to Trinidad tomorrow for the 30th anniversary of my first seeing otters there. My heart really isn't in it, though. Everything I knew and loved there is gone, even the old fishing pier itself. Otters haven't been a part of my life for over 5 years now. Can it be true? I never imagined that could happen; that it would all end like that. But it did, and there's no going back. So maybe I won't go tomorrow after all. There's nothing to celebrate anymore – only losses to mourn.


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New Trinidad Pier

Jul. 28th, 2012 | 01:12 am

The newly reconstructed Trinidad Pier opened to the public at the beginning of July. I visited it for the first time yesterday evening.

The design is attractive and functional. The railings are all aluminum, and the deck is a continuous solid slab of concrete that slopes slightly downward from west to east and from south to north to allow for drainage.

Click here to view 14 photos of the new pier.Collapse )

So now, not only is my otter family gone, so is the entire old pier from where I made all of my observations. Every physical trace of my former life with otters is now vanished off the face of the earth...

I didn't see any of the beasts yesterday evening, but I ran into one of my old otter-spotter friends, and she reported that she has seen the otters often this summer; as many as 10 in one group. Based upon some of her behavioral descriptions, I think it's highly likely that Slick is still alive! Excellent news! I really wish I could visit Trinidad more often, but I'm poor as a churchmouse now, and there's no way I can afford to make the trip, even just once a month. Hopefully, I'll get to see some otters sometime this summer. It's been almost a year since my last sighting.


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Family of 6!

Aug. 4th, 2011 | 10:29 pm

I saw a family of 6 otters this evening! Here's a short video of 5 of them swimming toward the pier:

That's the elder matriarch at front left, an adult daughter at her side, and three pups of the year behind the females. (I don't know if they are all the old mother's or a combining of two females' litters.) The sixth individual was Slick, who had already come over to the pier by himself about a minute earlier. :3


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Jul. 16th, 2011 | 08:34 pm

I saw otters at Trinidad this evening! First sighting since last September. It was the family – a mom, two juveniles (one of which was a pup of the year), and a companion who I'm 90% sure was Slick. (He would be 9 this year.) Didn't see much of the second juvenile, but I think it was more likely a yearling than a pup. Just missed getting to touch Slick on the nose under the dock (eating in his usual spot, as always), and I probably would have succeeded if I didn't have my dog with me. Anyway, it was a big thrill to see them! First time this summer, but hopefully not the last. :3


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May. 27th, 2011 | 06:14 pm


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Sep. 11th, 2010 | 07:54 pm
location: 41.055517307704, -124.14725661278

I just saw wild river otters at Trinidad for the 4,800th time! Or maybe this evening's sighting was #4,801. Whatever, it's been so long since the last time, I've kind of lost count...

Anyway, what I saw was clearly an extended, multi-generation Family grouping. You might think that after not seeing otters for so long, I might not be able to tell what was going on, but after only a few minutes observing the group, I could tell with certainty that it was comprised of a matriarch accompanied by two adult female daughters, and two yearlings of indeterminate sex. There were no pups of the year with the Family.

Although I have no way of knowing for certain, I also have no reason to doubt that this new matriarch is the same alien female who colonized this harbor in 2007, after the resident family I followed for 20 years snuffed itself out. If the 2007 female is, indeed, the reigning matriarch now, this present state of affairs is a genuinely glad outcome. I do confess to being a bit troubled by the evident lack of offspring this past season, but on the basis of my own brief observations, and anecdotal accounts by others reported over the summer, it does appear that Trinidad Bay is once again home to a stable, resident otter population. And, for that scant knowledge alone, I am truly happy!


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Rarest otter spotted

Jul. 26th, 2010 | 03:05 am

This otter almost looks like something out of the Pliocene to me. It's good news, anyway! :3

Click for the story.


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I'm innocent!

May. 10th, 2010 | 05:08 am


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Albino otter

Apr. 28th, 2010 | 10:42 pm

Pictures of a true albino otter in the North of Scotland.

Photos by Karen Jack.

Story here.


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Close encounter of the otter kind

Apr. 15th, 2010 | 07:07 am

Here's Little Mama inspecting my shoe.

My friend, Dan Lorey, captured the bigger picture.

Trinidad, California, August 15, 2003.


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Little Mama surveys her domain

Apr. 12th, 2010 | 05:41 am

Little Mama, July 2, 2004, during the last summer of her life...

click image to enlarge

Photo by my friend Alon D. Karpovsky.


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Otters.net update

Apr. 9th, 2010 | 04:50 pm

Over last night, I upgraded all of the photos on my "official" website, An Otter Family Album. For some time, I've wanted to make the pictures larger, and do away with the unsightly (and now unnecessary) copyright watermarks. Overall, I think the visual appeal of the site is significantly improved.

I'm surprised to discover that the Family Album is now the #8-ranked site on Google for the search term "otters." I remember a few months after I launched Otters.net in 2001, I couldn't find it at all via Google. I still don't think many people read it, though. I only get maybe a dozen email inquiries a year from the site. I'm glad it's easier to find in searches now, anyway.


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Aug. 19th, 2009 | 11:11 pm

I saw otters at Trinidad this evening! It's been exactly one year to the day since I last saw them.

All summer long, I have been receiving reports from reliable witnesses that there was an otter family in the bay again. Unfortunately, I no longer have reliable transportation, so I have been unable to go see them myself. Despite the fact that my car was acting up as bad as ever yesterday, though, I decided to tempt fate for one evening and make the drive up to Trinidad anyway.

It was just like the old days! The minute I stepped onto the pier, I saw a family of six in a tight formation swimming over from the headland. There was a mom and three babies, plus two yearling-sized 'satellite' individuals. It looked like a typical multi-year family grouping that I've been used to seeing here since the late 1980s.

Here's a video of the family in the tide pools east of the pier, taken earlier this evening.

Not having seen otters here for so long, the continuity of my observations has been completely disrupted, so I can only speculate who it was that I saw today. My best guess is that it was the mother I first saw in 2007, plus her three pups-of-the-year and the two yearlings born last year. All I can do is guess, though. I'm essentially just a clueless tourist here like anyone else now.

Whatever, it sure was great to see otters again! My life has hardly been worth living without them in it...


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Greetings from 1982

Dec. 25th, 2008 | 12:59 am

This was my lutrine Holiday greeting back in 1982. People liked it then, and I hope that you do, too!

Open the card.Collapse )

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2009!



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A happy ending

Sep. 29th, 2008 | 06:31 am
music: Pink Floyd: Time

The dock area is closed now, meaning another summer season has come to an end. I only saw otters once, but that was enough to make worthwhile all my tribulations of the past 10 months. I'm content, because I know that, wherever the otter family is living now, they are alive, and they are safe, and those are the most important things to me. And Slick still lives, and through him, the old blood line will continue.

Slick also taught me two final lessons, one of which is that a male will sometimes leave his birth area to take up permanent residence somewhere else. I'd never had firm evidence for this before, as all the males born at Trinidad in the past remained there their whole life. But now I know that a male will disperse to another area to live in proximity to a female to whom he is bonded.

Slick's also shown me that an adult male can become a full-time cohabitating member of a family group of a mother and her young. I hadn't seen this since 1983, when I was first starting to watch the otters, but back then, I wasn't quite certain about what I was seeing. Granted, I only saw Slick and his family once, but I saw enough to know that this had been going on for quite a while. And taking up permanent residence with the neighboring family really was the only satisfactory explanation for why he had apparently vanished completely from Trinidad Bay.


Finally, I wanted to share a picture taken during what were probably my final moments of watching otters at Trinidad, just after 9PM on August 19.

There are actually two otters on the rocks at right, but they're too indistinct to be recognizable. The picture captures a typical moment, though – me, the lone watcher, seeing things that no one else can see. I'm glad I wasn't really alone that particular night, though. My friend Dan took this picture. I was so glad he was there then. At least I got to share my Happy Ending with someone else who really knows what these animals mean to me...


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Fossil lutrines

Sep. 14th, 2008 | 02:25 am

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from someone who asked me some very interesting questions about the evolution of otters. This was a specialty of mine in graduate school, and this recent inquiry has resulted in me digging up some images of fossil "lutromorphs" – or otterlike animals – from an old research paper of mine. So I thought I'd share some of them with the readers of this blog.

This is Potamotherium, an "otter" from 30 million years ago. I put that in quotes because otters as we know them now didn't exist yet. Otters are members of the weasel ("mustelid") family of carnivores. Potamotherium, however, was an "arctoid" carnivore – a taxonomic group comprising what would become the bear family, the weasel family and the raccoon family millions of years later.

Despite being such a "primitive" carnivore, though, Potamotherium's skeleton (below) looks almost exactly like that of modern otters.

The otterlike body-shape ("lutromorphy") is a classic mammalian form. It's so well-suited to its environment that it's evoloved over and over again in many different groups of animals.

For example, this is the fossil "seal-otter" known as Semantor, from approximately 5-6 million years ago. Semantor is an example of a "morphological intermediate" between otterlike animals that lived on land and the fully-aquatic pinnipeds we know today.

And this fossil animal, Enaliarctos, was an otter-like bear which lived in the inland sea of California 22-24 million years ago.

Enaliarctos was a "hemicyonine ursid," which roughly translated means "half-doglike bear." Like I said, way back then, the carnivores were not as well-differentiated as they are now. Anyway, doing some reading on the web, I guess today Enaliarctos is considered to be the common ancestor of seals and sea lions. Back when I was in grad school, Enaliarctos was thought to be ancestral to sea lions only, but now there seems to be more evidence that it was the granddaddy to modern-day phocid seals, as well...


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Olympic otter caricature

Aug. 24th, 2008 | 04:55 am

This is a photograph of a colored pencil drawing that used to hang in the main building of the "Otter Zentrum" in Hankensbüttel, Germany (Google Earth: 52 43'55.64 N, 10 37'11.69 E). I took the photo during my visit there for the V. International Otter Colloquium in September, 1989.

A rather attractive fellow, isn't he? I sure thought so. When I heard that the Otter Zentrum had been destroyed in an arson fire in December, 1993, the first thing I thought of was all the wonderful otter art there that must also have burned. So, the picture I took of this drawing is probably all that remains of it.

I wish the artist's name was legible. I also wish I knew the real story behind this artwork. I can't be certain, of course, but the "O.S" might stand for "Olympische Spiele;" German for "Olympic Games." Was this a concept drawing for a proposed Olympic mascot? Who knows?


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Aug. 20th, 2008 | 04:21 am

Arriving at the pier last night with out-of-town company, I was surprised to find unequivocal sign right away that at least one otter had visited the dock that very day. There were two very fresh fish scraps – and only two – on top of one of the pontoon floats under the dock. Only an otter could have put them there, and not just any otter, but one that was familiar with the pier structure. I was very excited! One of the natives had obviously returned!

So for the first time this summer, I went into active otter-spotting mode. Scanning the headland, I noticed a new path in the brush at the main den site that was just as wide as an otter's body, and saw signs that a second den entrance had been used recently, too. Then, about twenty minutes later, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and to my amazed delight, I saw not one but five otters walking down the crag of the main den towards the water: three adult-sized individuals, and two pups-of-the-year. (It was the largest assemblage of otters I've seen here in six years.)

It was after sunset already, so I had to rely on behaviors alone to figure out who I was looking at. To make a long story short, after witnessing all the various interactions, I believe the group was comprised of Mother, Pup (now a yearling, and evidently a female – yay!), a new male and female pup, and Slick! (I'm now convinced more than ever that he is the father of all of the youngsters.) I don't know where they've been for the last 8-1/2 months, but obviously, they're all alive and well and doing fine!

With such a long absence, I know I still don't have a study anymore, but at least it has a happier ending now than it did before, and my otter-starved soul is whole once again. :-)


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