Chilean marine otter: Meet the sea cat

Lured by the dream of getting close to the rare, beautiful and seldom-photographed marine otter, Kevin Schafer packed his cameras and flew to the remote coast of Chile. Follow his quest.

Chilean marine otter article spread

Lured by the dream of getting close to the rare, beautiful and seldom-photographed marine otter, Kevin Schafer packed his cameras and flew to the remote coast of Chile...

I was worried. I had just travelled halfway around the world to photograph a little-known endangered animal as part of a new book project on vanishing wildlife, and yet it barely seemed to exist even on the internet, let alone in real life.
My quarry was the marine otter, the diminutive South American cousin of the more familiar European otter. The size of a domestic cat, it is the world’s smallest marine mammal and one of only two species that live entirely in or near salt water – the other is the much better-known North Pacific sea otter.
When I’m preparing for any photographic project, I spend hours scouring the internet for information about the habits and haunts of my chosen species – anything that might improve my chances of success. But Googling has its limits.
I found almost nothing on the marine otter – no accurate census data, few first-hand reports from the field and certainly no ‘X marks the spot’ style tip-offs. What’s more, I discovered that only a handful of pictures have ever been taken of the animal in the wild.
This was both good and bad news. Good because I could potentially return with some fresh and unique images. Bad because there must be a reason why so few photos exist.
I did manage to glean some basic facts, though. First of all, marine otters have more than their fair share of names, both Spanish and native South American in origin.They are known as nutria del mar, chungungo, huallaque and, my favourite, el gato de mar – the sea cat – a reference to the animals’ diminutive size and bristling whiskers.
This resemblance is further mirrored by their Latin name, Lontra felina.
Lone rangers
Whatever name they go by, marine otters are generalist predators, choosing to dine on a variety of marine crustaceans, molluscs and fish. There is even a report of an individual seizing an inattentive seabird.
According to Gonzalo Medina-Vogel, a Chilean biologist who has studied the species since 1993, they are largely solitary animals that do not form the big social groups of their relatives, such as giant river otters.
They are promiscuous and the loose home ranges of males often overlap with those of several neighbouring females.
However, the most surprising thing about marine otters is their vast geographic range. Historically, they covered 5,000km of the Pacific coastline between Peru and Tierra del Fuego – an extraordinary span not just because of the distance, but also because of the diversity of habitat.
In the north, the otters live along the arid coasts of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth, yet they are equally at home on the soggy Valdivian shores of southern Chile, which can receive more than 10m of rain a year.
This scattered, extensive distribution makes finding them akin to locating a needle in a haystack.
Conditions on land, however, are largely irrelevant to these otters – their survival depends upon the waters of the Humboldt Current, one of the most productive areas of ocean in the world. They favour rocky, exposed shorelines where natural cracks and caves provide places to rest between bouts of fishing and safe havens for females to raise young.
Needle in a haystack
I decided to begin my search for otters on the rugged Pacific coast of Chiloé Island, south of Chile’s fabled Lake District, where their density was supposed to be the highest in their range.
On my arrival (after what seemed like a week in a series of ever smaller aeroplanes), I hired Pedro, a husky, good-natured local fisherman, to be my guide. He didn’t speak any English, and to describe my Spanish as meagre would be generous.
We could barely communicate, but somehow we managed to make ourselves understood enough to coordinate a trip out to a cluster of islands where Pedro thought we might find otters.
There were no guarantees and, as we pushed Pedro’s battered skiff through the surf, I comforted myself with the thought that I had allowed 10 whole days to complete this mission. If I hadn’t seen an otter by then, it would not be for the lack of trying.
I was astonished, therefore, when a pair of wild otters surfaced right next to our boat, just two minutes from the shore. Astonished – and completely unprepared.
I hadn’t even taken my camera out of the bag. Both otters were clutching small crabs in their paws, which they promptly ripped apart and gobbled down. Like otters everywhere, they were fast, focused and vanished in an instant.
Otters aplenty
Disappointed with myself, I pulled out my camera, worrying that I might have squandered my only chance to photograph these rare creatures. But I needn’t have worried – I saw half a dozen different otters on that first day alone and was soon snapping away.
I was also a bit puzzled – aren’t species at risk of extinction supposed to be shy and hard to find?
Though marine otters were declared endangered by the IUCN in 2004, nobody knows exactly how many there are left. According to Medina-Vogel, it is very difficult to count them over their huge range. “We have estimated that there are 1–1.7 otters per kilometre of coastline in areas with the right rocky habitat.”
But Medina-Vogel admits that the species is not evenly distributed and is absent in some places, especially where there are sandy beaches or human settlements.
Whatever the marine otter’s population today, it is probably only a fraction of what it once was. They were decimated by the fur trade during the first half of the last century.
Between 1910 and 1954, 38,000 otter skins were exported from Chile – a figure that is certainly far higher than the number of otters that survive today. One website claims that as few as 1,000 may remain.
Meanwhile, the species continues to decline. Despite legal protection dating back to 1929, a black market for otter fur still exists, and poachers operate in remote areas where there is little law enforcement.
“Otters are also affected by chemical pollution and coastal development,” Medina-Vogel told me. “In some communities, many are killed by dogs.”
The species also has to cope with natural predators – primarily orcas, which can hunt in very shallow water. Sharks also take otters, and youngsters may be targeted by birds of prey.
But by far the greatest threat to this species is mankind. Because the otters feed on marine animals that are also targets of commercial fisheries – such as fish, crabs and octopus – they are often seen as a threat and killed. Others drown accidentally in fishing nets and traps, while chronic overfishing reduces the food available to them, adding even more pressure.
Fast and furious
On Chiloé, however, the otters are thriving. It was rare that I saw one return from a dive without a fish or crab clamped firmly in its jaws, so their food seemed abundant. Nobody has ever followed them underwater, so their precise hunting technique remains a mystery, but I often watched them searching pools and kelp beds at low tide, snatching whatever they could find.
And, though I expected them to be shy – reasonably so, considering the persecution they endure – they seemed remarkably accepting of our presence.
Pedro explained that these otters are looked after by the local fishermen, many of whom double up as nature tour guides and take visitors to see a nearby penguin colony. Consequently, the otters have learned to ignore the boat traffic.
‘My’ otters appeared tame, but efforts to photograph them were fast and furious, just like the animals themselves – no languid posing here, as these little fellows almost never stayed still.
After several days of observation, however, I began to see patterns in their behaviour that made my job much easier. I discovered, for example, that they seemed to favour certain ‘dining’ rocks where they regularly consumed larger prey. If I waited there long enough, an otter was bound to show up for a meal.
I also found what appeared to be otter holts, or denning holes, located in the rocky clefts just above the high-tide line. I could almost always spot an animal coming or going from one of these. Though these mammals are aquatic, they spend most of their time on land sleeping and grooming.
Love is so close to hate
Near the end of my time on Chiloé, I enjoyed a day with two otters that seemed to alternate their time between fishing and fighting with one another. This surprised me, since they were otherwise inseparable and often happily shared meals.
Then, at the end of the day, all was revealed when their bickering suddenly became mating, though it was difficult to tell the difference.
Such a long, aggressive prelude to breeding is common among most river otter species, and provides further evidence that their marine cousins began their strictly coastal existence relatively recently in their evolutionary history.
After spending more than a week in the company of marine otters, I began to feel a deep affection for these spunky, energetic animals for whom life is a constant rush. And despite all my anxiety, I consider my mission a success.
I came home with some of the first images that have ever been taken of marine otter behaviour. But pictures are a poor substitute for a living, breathing animal – one that may vanish completely if steps are not taken to protect both this remarkable species and its precious habitat.
Stiff, whiskery hairs on the upper lip and corners of the marine otter’s mouth help it to feel for prey in the turbid water near the seabed where visibility is poor.
NOW YOU DO IT: Getting to otter heaven
Seeing marine otters in the wild is not difficult, but getting to where they live is.
  • Chiloé Island is situated off the coast of southern Chile, a short car and ferry ride from the city of Puerto Montt in Chile’s scenic Lake District.
  • Whereas the eastern side of the island is warm and dry, lying in the shadow of the interior mountains, the western shore is wet and wild, and marine fauna is richest here.
  • So steer towards the west-coast village of Puñihuil, famous for its penguin colony – the only one in Chile with both Magellanic and Humboldt penguins in residence. Guided by local fishermen, you should find otters on the small offshore islets.
  • You can also search for blue whales and dolphins or visit Chiloé National Park with its pristine rainforest. Here you might see Darwin’s foxes, pygmy deer, noisy flocks of parakeets or the rare endemic marsupial, the monito del monte.
A TALE OF TWO OTTERS The marine otter shares many traits with the European otter.
MARINE OTTER Lontra felina
Length: 90cm (including tail)
Weight: Up to 5kg
Diet: Marine crustaceans, molluscs and fish.
Breeding: Mating takes place from December to January and 2–4 pups are born after a gestation of 60–65 days.
The young become independent after 10 months.
Habitat: Exclusively marine, with a preference for rocky coasts.
Distribution: Pacific coast of South America.
Status: Endangered; actual numbers unknown.
Length: 1m (including tail)
Weight: Up to 8kg
Diet: Mostly fish, but will take crustaceans and cephalopods.
Breeding: Mating takes place from February to July and 2–3 cubs are born after a gestation of 60–70 days. The young remain with their mothers for up to 14 months.
Habitat: All freshwater and coastal marine habitats.
Distribution: Extremely wide, from the Arctic to the tropics in Europe and Asia.
Status: Near threatened, but recovering in parts of its European range.
Read Kevin's Tale from the Bush about why marine otters, expensive camera gear and big waves don't mix in the May 2011 issue - on sale now!


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