A family of El Dorado Hills river otters created a YouTube sensation when they took up residence at the Town Center pond and were seen swimming, extending their heads above water to survey their domain and diving to feed. On Friday, people will be able to get a close-up look at these fresh-water cousins of coastal sea otters when Aquarium of the Bay at San Francisco’s Pier 39 opens a long-awaited North American River Otter exhibit.
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Sea otters had their major “coming out” in 1984 when the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened. Some 50 million visitors later, the MBA’s five rescued sea otters have become celebrities whose endearing, furry, whiskered faces appear regularly on the cover of the aquarium’s promotional pamphlets. The Aquarium of the Bay hopes to attract similar popularity for river otters.
The public doesn’t consider fresh-water otters to be “charismatic fauna,” like the sea otter, admitted Christina Slager, director of animal care and exhibits at the Aquarium of the Bay — San Francisco’s only waterfront aquarium. “It’s hard to say why,” she said, “They’re every bit as active, have a very interesting lifestyle and adorable pups. I’d say it’s their lack of familiarity mostly, as sea otters have become poster children for the otter world.”
Just like their salt-water brethren, North American river otters (Lontra canadensis) enjoy life to the fullest. The new 1,000-square-foot river otter exhibit at Aquarium of the Bay is designed to show their playful side in a spectacular setting with sweeping views of San Francisco Bay, a sight the otters wouldn’t normally see in the wild.
Otter habitat is more typically the upper watershed. They live along streams and in lakes as high up as 9,000 feet in elevation, occasionally venturing down to the coast. One such coastal resident is “Sutro Sam” who has taken up residence at Land’s End near San Francisco’s Cliff House. Slager said, “It’s rather unusual for a river otter to live so close to the ocean. Sam lives in the ruins of the Sutro Baths, which contain fresh water from small streams that pour into them. Like other river otters, Sam will hunt in salt water, though needs fresh water to survive.”
In the new $1.3 million exhibit at Aquarium of the Ba,y ideal river otter habitat has been created, with a six-foot wall of live plants, deep and shallow pools of fresh water in which the otters can cavort, plenty of dry land and a waterfall and slide on which the otters can play.
Slager explained, “River otters are more playful than sea otters, sliding down waterfalls, just for the fun of it. They show no real purpose in doing it, other than that they love to do it. They enjoy finding objects and manipulating them and are also very vocal, chirping, whistling, growling and screaming. Groups of bachelor males will rough-house with high energy. River otters are curious and endlessly entertaining to watch.”
The North American River Otter exhibit is the first of a two-part expansion for the Aquarium of the Bay, with “Watershed Discovery Labs” to help the aquarium expand its education programs and rotating and temporary exhibits to allow focus on such topics as Marine Protected Areas and sustainable seafood.
The primary focus of Aquarium of the Bay, is presentation of aquatic life found within San Francisco Bay and along the California coast. It was the aquarium’s attention to issues facing wildlife within watersheds leading to the bay that led to the development of the river otter exhibit. The health of San Francisco Bay is tied to the health of watershed systems leading to it from as far away as the highest peaks in El Dorado County.
Aquarium of the Bay reported that in years past, water pollution and the fur trade had diminished otter populations, though “regulations to improve water quality and estuarine habitat have allowed river otter populations to recover.” It credits the return of river otters to the San Francisco Bay estuary as evidence of what’s “possible with ongoing commitments to a healthy watershed.”
Slager said Northern California populations of river otters seem to be making a comeback. A census in 1995 recorded very few of them, though numbers have resurged to the point that they’re now being seen on docks and in cosmopolitan settings, which is a good indicator of improving health of the watershed.”
North American River Otters are related to minks, though their dispositions are quite different. While minks are often angry loners and fearsome fighters, otters are social and playful. They survive mostly on a diet of fish, supplemented by crabs, frogs, turtles, small animals and crayfish.
In Louisiana, river otters are considered to be a nuisance to the state’s crayfish farms, are trapped and disposed of in the fur trade. Three of the otters brought to the Aquarium of the Bay’s new exhibit come from the Bayou state where they were headed for the fur trade. Their relocation to Aquarium of the Bay saved them from a death sentence.
At Lake Tahoe, the problem is not too many otters, but perhaps too few, as populations of non-native crayfish there have increased so greatly that the crustaceans are disrupting the lake’s fragile ecosystem. To reduce the number of crayfish, the Tahoe Lobster Co. was founded in 2010 and as many as seven other commercial crayfish harvesters have applied to operate at Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care in Truckee operates the only river otter rehab center in California. Rescued otters are often sent to LTWC as abandoned pups. They’re nursed and cared for until ready for release to the wild. One such female was seen in another famous YouTube video. As LTWC volunteers watched, she frolicked by their feet during her first swim in the Upper Truckee River.
Videos of local river otters can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCA-AlibHOU, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhKY-O8yZxU , www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfcu49XSMZ8 and www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y79MM0tSsm0. More about the new exhibit is found at www.aquariumofthebay.org.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.