Otters and Smiles

This playful otter had quite a routine established--he used every inch of his tank that simulated a rushing river

This playful otter had quite a routine established–he used every inch of his tank that simulated a rushing river

There are certain things in life that make it impossible not to smile.  A toddler laughing.  A dog wagging like mad.  An amazing sunset.  And otters.

Who can possibly watch otters at play without smiling?

The Tennessee Aquarium has otters in their River Journey display.  I have been to the aquarium at least a dozen times in the past year and a half.  The otters have always been sleeping.  Otters sleeping are cute, but not quite so provocative of a smile as when they’re playing.  Discovering they were wide awake and having a ball on our recent visit with friends was quite a joy for me.

One might think the otter needed a rest, but he really was looking for a diving board

One might think the otter needed a rest, but he really was looking for a diving board

The Otter takes a spinning leap as he makes a dramatic dive back into the water

The Otter takes a spinning leap as he makes a dramatic dive back into the water

This might have been a great time to switch over to the video mode on my camera.  But, alas, I keep forgetting it will shoot video.  So, I have created a video from a series of rapid fire stills instead.  I didn’t actually shoot with the intention of making a video, so there are gaps.  The biggest gap is that I missed when they were swimming upside down.  How is it that otters can swim upside down as easily as right side up?   According to the National Geographic website, they can close their ears and noses.  I imagine that would be a big advantage during graceful rolls and swirls through the water.

The first time I thought I saw a river otter in the wild was in Colorado.  As it turned out, it was a beaver.  When it smacked its flat tail against the water at us, I realized my mistake.  In retrospect, a sea otter would be closer to the size of a beaver than a river otter, so I really should have known it was a beaver.  Seeing a beaver was pretty exciting, but I’ve always wanted to see wild otters at play.  So far, the closest I’ve come is when we saw river otters in a mountain lake near Mt. Hood in Oregon last fall.  They were fun to watch, but we were a bit far away to get to see much besides their heads when they would pop back to the surface after diving for fish.

The only pair of wild river otters I've ever seen taking a break from fishing in Oregon

The only pair of wild river otters I’ve ever seen taking a break from fishing in Oregon

River Otters are one of the many creatures I envy.  They are perfectly equipped for their lifestyle.  They have all the special features they need to not just survive through cold winters and hot summers, but to thrive in them.  They embrace their lifestyle with verve and frolic through life.

Of course, there are downsides.  For one, they are apparently very vulnerable to environmental pollutants.  For another, that warm, waterproof coat is something humans want to have.  They had disappeared from much of the country as a result.  Fortunately, through reintroduction and habitat management, they’ve made quite the comeback and are even considered a nuisance in some localized areas.  However, there are still many parts of the country that have very few river otters.  These must be the parts of the country I usually go hiking in.  I keep hoping, though.


The High Desert

Going back in time again to a previous trip to Oregon, I’ve pulled together a few photos from the High Desert Museum in Bend near Lava Lands National Park.

A recurring theme is the number of golden mantle ground squirrels that posed for me.  I noticed a marked improvement in the poses at the museum over the ones at the park.  I suspect the ground squirrels at the museum are professionals.

Besides the ground squirrels who scurry along the many paths, they also have native creatures on display.  Since shooting captive wildlife is far easier than sitting around waiting for it in the wild, I took full advantage of the opportunity.

Given that it was mid-afternoon, many of the animals were content to lie in the sun and let me shoot.  However, the river otter was not so cooperative.  I can only recall having been to a facility with river otters who were actually visible and active once in my life–it was nearby at the Seattle aquarium.  There must be something about the Pacific Northwest that makes otters more active.  I guess that makes sense since the people of the Pacific Northwest tend to be more active, too.

In any case, first I tried getting shots of the river otter through a glass wall on one side of the “pond” he was swimming in.  I thought it would be really cool to have underwater shots.  With little light, I was stuck with a slow shutter speed, so none of the underwater shots are worth looking at.  Just dark, blurred shapes moving through water.

Next, I headed outside hoping for better light to shoot in.  I did get more light, but it wasn’t exactly better light considering the time of day.  It was enough that I was able to shoot at 1/160th of a second, though.  That allowed me to stop at least some motion.  My favorite pictures of the otter are the two that show him shaking off.  The first one is the start of the shake with only his head in motion.  The second one is slightly later.  The shake has propagated down to his neck.  If I would have taken a bunch of shots, you could have seen how the shake moves from the head all the way down the length of the otter’s body.  It’s pretty amusing to watch.

Another critter that posed for me was the porcupine (hedge hog) who was part of the animal show we caught the tail end of (pun!).  He didn’t pose just for me–there was a big crowd in the amphitheater, but the porcupine remained amazingly focused on the bottle his handler was feeding him.

At the end of our day, Pat and I went to Pilot Butte State Park to enjoy the sunset.  It’s basically a giant hill in the middle of an otherwise flat town.  At the top, we were treated to spectacular views of the mountains, the clouds, and the setting sun.