We were in Peru, deep in the Amazon jungle on the Madre de Dios River, boarding a raft with hopes of finding the Giant Otters.
Although they are listed as endangered, there was a chance we might see them on an oxbow lake. The world’s largest freshwater carnivores, Pteronura basiliensis primarily eat fish, especially piranha; they also eat crabs, snakes, and small caiman.
The raft had been specially constructed for viewing these otters. It was a flat, wooden platform built on top of two canoes. The two canoeists paddled in unison.
Although the otters are highly social and vocal mammals, we were asked to be quiet and still, for they are rare, and getting rarer.
We had questions. How giant are they?
Males are in the range of five feet long (1.5 m), not including the tail; and females are slightly smaller.
How rare are they?
Found only in South America, they have already gone extinct in some countries. Sadly, there are only 1,000-5,000 individuals left on earth (Wikipedia). They are on the International Conservation Red List (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species).
So we sat still and quiet, looking for this special otter.
I’ve seen both wild River Otters and Sea Otters. Adorable and quiet, they endearingly flip and spin around. In Monterey Bay, it is common to see the Sea Otters cracking open mussels on their chests, so cute.
So I thought I knew what to expect if we did find the Giant Otters…but I was wrong.
There’s a constant feeling of intimidation and mystery on the Amazon. Howler monkeys woke us up that dark morning, making booming, howling sounds. I thought we were in a tornado or something.
The guide told us Giant Otters eat piranha. I looked around me. Caiman were gliding past us. We’re on this raft without railings, and there are piranha and caiman swimming around.
And some really big birds the size of pheasants were watching us, croaking and hissing. Hoatzins.
Fortunately, we found the Otters. I was initially shocked at their size. The size of a human. Five feet long, plus the tail.
They were not the least bit concerned with us. We were the intruders. They were in their element, frolicking and boisterous.
They would disappear under the dark water, come up with a fish and tear at it with great abandon, using their large, webbed forepaws. They were barking and snorting, and gregarious.
Soon we quietly paddled away. I hoped they would always have this beautiful place to hunt and thrive.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified