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River Otters in Martinez

Mar 02, 2015 09:58AM ● By Becky Coburn

By R.L. Tinker

It has taken me longer to get to know some of my neighbors than others and I’ve become enamored with some recent aquaintences: the river otters at Hidden Lakes Park in Martinez. After watching them for the past two years, I’m still surprised that these wild creatures have chosen to inhabit this series of ponds and creeks smack-dab in the middle of residential neighborhoods and a busy elementary school. The possibility of encountering them has me so addicted that I’ve had to consciously alter my regular treks in the park in order to balance exercise with satisfying my urge to otter-watch.

I spend an inordinate amount of time waiting to catch a glimpse – stopping mid-hike to quietly wait on the banks of the lake for full minutes listening for a splash, searching for the graceful wakes on the surface as they move out of the grassy reeds that line the water’s edge, or I follow the telltale air bubble clusters to predict where the swimmer will pop up. I am giddy if one of them even glances up at me. I hike a hill, jog a flat, then gaze at the water - exercise and otter spotting interspersed.

A few years ago I was oblivious to their presence, but regulars at the park tell me the otters have been around for several years. Karen James, who took these stunning pictures, dedicates far more time than I to observing the otters, birds, turtles and other wildlife at the park. I met Karen as we were standing on the opposite banks of a narrow stretch of the lake. Her impressive camera lens was trained on two otters that had pulled out of the water on my side, just a few feet in front of me behind the reeds, to dig into a large, freshly caught fish.  Well, one of them dug in, loudly crunching and chewing; the other could only watch and hope for a scrap.  After generously agreeing to share her photos, Karen directed me to the River Otter Ecology Project website,, for information about North American River Otters in the Bay Area. 

According to the River Otter Ecology Project (ROEP), otters are a sentinel species, because they require clean water and plenty of healthy fish to thrive.  Their return to our watersheds after a decades-long absence attests to improving conditions of rivers, lakes and streams and offers an example of what conservation and restoration can achieve.  Hidden Lakes is a beautiful park, but I get a little discouraged by the trash that some careless visitors leave behind on trails and in and around the water. But I met another park regular as we were both dumping garbage we had collected while walking.  He introduced himself as Elvoid and he lives directly adjacent to the park.  Elvoid assured me that conditions have vastly improved from 30 or 40 years ago.  When his boys were young, they would all head into the lake in their canoe and pull out 200-300 pounds of bottles, cans and trash that littered the water and surrounding area.  The now thriving wildlife population makes a strong argument that the efforts to conserve and restore Bay Area wetlands is well worth continuing.

Agile on land as well as in the water, the otters made their way from the bay and delta through rivers, marshes, streams, creeks and canals, and have been spotted locally in Martinez, Pleasant Hill, Concord, Pacheco, Walnut Creek, Lafayette and beyond, according to the interactive map on the ROEP website.  ROEP’s mission is “to illustrate the linkages between the recovery of local river otter populations and healthy watersheds, and foster public and organizational participation in restoration and conservation.” The Otter Spotter Citizen Science Project allows the public to add to the data that’s being compiled by noting sightings and uploading video and photos. You can even collect otter scat samples and send them in for analysis if you’re so inclined.

Whether you encounter otters regularly or are on a new mission to seek them out, ROEP offers common sense, but critical etiquette and safety guidelines, most importantly: Avoid approaching and don't harass otters if you encounter them. If otters are comfortable around you, they'll ignore you! If they're uncomfortable, they will stop doing what they're doing and move away.  Otters will bite if threatened or attacked.  Pretty simple.  Respect these wild creatures.

On a recent misty, early morning walk, I heard the splash then waited high on a bank while two otters glided around the bend just below me.  They first spotted me, turned and rose up out of the water to get a better look, snorted twice and went back to the business of hunting for breakfast, ignoring me. Made my whole day.