Traverse City Record-Eagle

Northern Living

March 17, 2013

Marta Hepler Drahos: Seeing otters in new light

Like most kids, I fell in love with otters at the zoo. They seemed at once exotic and dog-like, with their long whiskers, sleek heads and playful antics.

From my grandfather’s cottage on Lake Leelanau, river otter sightings weren’t common. But one evening after he and my father came back from fishing, they told about how an otter tried to climb into their skiff, perhaps in search of an easy meal. Its perseverance, and their evasion tactics, nearly bent my father double as he recalled them.

Now when we boat or kayak the Cedar River that empties into the lake, my husband and I sometimes spot otters making their way up or downstream in our wake.

But my first sea otter sighting came in Central California. As our whale-watching tour boat made its way around Monterey Bay, part of a national marine sanctuary, it passed dozens of floating brown logs. When one suddenly sat up, it was the beginning of a love affair with the area that has driven me to return again and again.

It was in the classic log position that we encountered a sea otter a few years later at a nearby slough. We watched as, floating on its back, it cracked a clam on its stomach using the stone tool it carried in the loose pouch of skin under its foreleg. It sucked out the contents, then dropped the shell, which our guide scooped up in a net and passed around. If there were a clean-plate contest for otters, ours surely would have won.

Now a trip to Central California isn’t complete unless I spend an hour or two glued to binoculars watching sea otters bob in the surf. That’s what I did last week, from two different vantage points.

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