What Is That … a Sea Lion or a River Otter?

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Waddells

On recent trips to the Galapagos Islands and the Sea of Cortez, we had opportunities to interact with sea lions, both on shore and in the water. Shortly after these trips, while Bruce was out kayaking at the cottage, he saw, off in the distance, an animal swiftly swimming away and he asked himself what it was. It looked like a small sea lion. Out came the camera and subsequent review showed that it was a North American river otter, not a sea lion (of course). Both have dark brown fur, and elongated heads with long whiskers and short ears; both move swiftly through the water in an undulating motion. However, sea lions live in salt water while river otters live in fresh water lakes, rivers and streams bordered by woodlands.

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We routinely keep an eye out for river otters when we are kayaking or canoeing. We have not been disappointed, especially on early morning outings. The river otter is one of the larger members of the weasel family. Adults can range from one to 1.4 metres from the tip of their nose to the end of their slender, furry tail and weigh from 4 to 11 kilograms. They have a typical weasel-like appearance with small eyes and ears, and a long thin body and tail. The fur of the river otters we have seen at White Lake ranges from dark brown to almost black.

This carnivore feeds primarily on fish and crayfish but will also eat frogs, snakes, small turtles, large insects and small mammals such as mice and young muskrats. They remain active throughout the year, foraging under the ice in winter, and in summer can be observed in open water or along the shoreline. They have streamlined bodies and webbed feet for swimming. They sometimes make extensive journeys overland, even in deep snow, to seek out new food sources, mates and denning sites.

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River otters are strong swimmers and divers and, given their shyness, can be very difficult to spot let alone photograph. We feel fortunate to have observed them on numerous occasions, often seeing them frolicking together in family groups. As soon as they see us in our canoe or kayak, they will interrupt these activities, diving underwater. That done, though, they seem to be curious as they will often re-surface, after swimming a distance underwater, lifting their heads and upper portion of their torsos straight out of the water, apparently to have a better look at us from a safe distance. This behaviour is often accompanied by a snorting or huffing sound from the curious otter.

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The presence of river otters in White Lake is a good indication of a healthy environment with good water quality which supports abundant sources of food. This is further demonstrated by our frequent sightings of family groups every year.

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For additional information about the North American river otter go to: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/american-river-otter/