Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 17, 2013

Marta Hepler Drahos: Seeing otters in new light

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — 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.

I was still in the otters’ thrall a few days after vacation when I opened my book club’s pick for the month and discovered that it revolved around otters. I dove right in, never suspecting that the otters in this case were kushtaka, the “land otter men” of Tlingit legend. Soon I was under the story’s spooky spell, imagining not the guileless otters of my experience, but soul-stealers and shape-changers that can transform everything but their bright black eyes and pointed teeth.

When I came out of the bedroom in a daze to announce that I’d finally finished the book, my husband was reading a photography magazine. “Look,” he said, as he held up a spread on “Babies of the Wild,’ showing a lion cub bonding with its father for the first time after emerging from the den. Then he turned the page. There, frolicking in Monterey Bay, were three glistening otters with bright black eyes and pointed teeth.

I’m already rethinking my next California trip.

Reach Marta Hepler Drahos at