Five Minutes with a River Otter

River Otter walking

In January I went to a flooded agricultural field to observe ducks and cranes. At one point there was a curious underwater movement…unidentifiable. We waited, and watched. And a river otter popped out!

River otter swimming in field



We have been going to this field for three decades, have spent close to 50 hours observing wildlife on this one field. Every winter it is loaded with songbirds, ducks, cranes, raptors, waders, and more…but we have never seen an otter here.

Flooded field with ducks, January 2019. Compare this scene to the photo below from January 2014.


We have, however, seen the river otter hunting on a nearby river several times.

River otter with fish. December 2008


There are 13 species of otters on earth, and they are all aquatic in nature, feeding primarily on fish and invertebrates. In North America we have the river otter (our focus today) and the sea otter.


North American River Otter Wikipedia


They are swift in the water, but get around just fine on land too. And its not just rivers they like; they occupy streams, lakes, wetlands and apparently even flooded fields, if they’re wet enough.


Carnivorous, river otters not only hunt fish but also a variety of amphibians and invertebrates like frogs, salamanders, clams, mussels, snails, turtles, and crayfish.


They have many aquatic characteristics: long, streamlined bodies, short limbs, webbed feet, and more. They can also hold their breath a long time underwater.


Coveted for their thick, waterproof fur, both river and sea otters have been heavily hunted by humans for centuries. Their populations declined precipitously in the past, and some species are still in danger.


The North America river otter’s conservation status is currently “Least Concern.” Fortunately their population has recovered and can be found inhabiting much of North America. See range map below.


If you ever walk along a river and see smooth, narrow mud slides leading into the water, keep your eyes open for a river otter. With short legs and low to the ground, the sleek mammal effortlessly slips into the river.


Here is the same field in a drought year. Even with scant water it attracts a lot of migrating and resident winter birds.

Red-winged Blackbirds, Sandhill Cranes, Egrets. Same field, but in January 2014.

For five quiet minutes the otter glided underwater, then came out onto land. Next, the otter scratched its ear with its foot, like a dog. They do this to dry themselves, thereby keeping their fur more insulated. Walked a bit, returned to the water, paddled for awhile, then vanished.

River Otter scratching

Truly one of the day’s biggest thrills.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

I decided I otter include other otters we have observed. These below are the two biggest otters in the world.


The sea otter (Enhydra lutris) also lives in North America. We saw this one in the Gulf of Alaska near Seward; and always see them in Monterey and the Bay Area, along the Northern California coast. Popular for photos, playful. They are listed as endangered.

Sea Otter, Alaska

The giant otter, also endangered, is found in South America. We watched three hunting together on an oxbow lake in Peru, not far from the Amazon River. A rare find.

Giant Otter, Peru. Photo by Bill Page.

Giant Otter, Peru. Photo by Bill Page.


North American River Otter range map, red is river otter range. Courtesy Wikipedia.



89 thoughts on “Five Minutes with a River Otter

  1. Very interesting post! We have river otters in New Jersey also, although I have never seen one. Your post inspires me to be on the look out for them from now on.

  2. That is so cool, Jet. I have seen a river otter in the wild only a few times and it was a thrilling experience each time. The photos are awesome and the information fascinating.

    • You get it, Mike, “a thrilling experience each time.” I am delighted you have had the thrill of seeing the river otters. All those visits to the local parks that you make, it’s great that you’ve been rewarded with the otters. Warm thanks for your kind message.

    • Your river otter sighting occurred a couple of years ago, and you still remember it fondly. We love our river otters. Many thanks, Craig, always great to hear from you.

      • I even remember one in Yellowstone who was teaching her baby to swim. She kept nudging him back to shore along the Firehole river. Apparently, swimming is something they have to learn. (Probably 30 years ago.)

  3. It’s always fun to see an otter, especially a sea otter – they are irresistible! We were walking on the outer harbour docks at dusk yesterday, and what fortunate timing it was – we saw a family of river otters swim out from the inner harbour, under the dock and into the channel. We’d already seen many harbour seals and two herons fishing, so it must have been a good day to eat (unless you were a fish…)
    Thanks for this one, Jet, and we wish you both a wonderful weekend!

    • I so loved hearing about your sea otter sighting, pc — and a whole family, wow. It’s so invigorating and exciting to see otters and harbor seals and fishing herons all in the same outing. What a great day (unless you were a fish). Thanks so much for your visit, pc, always a joy. I have no doubt you’ll be out in the elements this weekend having a grand time. Cheers!

  4. Great post Jet!
    Nice surprise to find the river otter in a rather unexpected place. They are amazing animals with their comfort both in and out of the water. You otter go back next year to see if you can spot more of them 😊

    • Great to hear from you, Dave, thanks so much. Yes, it was a nice surprise to find the river otter in the field. Every year we go back to the original place where we saw the otter in the river years ago. We search and search. It made this finding extra special. Warm thanks for your visit here, and my best to Sue too. Have been thinking about you both….

    • There’s something about otters that makes us smile–I’m glad to bring a smile to your face, Jill. Thanks so much for your visit and comment, always a treat.

  5. Otterly wonderful post! Loved the photos and information. The flooded field looks like an amazing place to watch birds (and the occasional river otter). I really enjoyed seeing the giant otter’s hands and teeth in the last photo, and the first photo of the river otter walking on land. Such interesting morphology. Happy Friday! 🙂

    • Yes, that field is great in the winter for watching so much wildlife. I’ve never gone there in the summer, probably not much happening. I’m happy you enjoyed the otter post, Myriam, and I liked your play on words. That giant otter’s hands and teeth are a great capture, I agree. They’re so big, close to five feet long! Warm thanks, my friend, for your visit today.

  6. We have both river otters and sea otters on Vancouver Island and I love seeing them both. They have such antics and the glimpses I get of them when I do see them (rarely), are always thrilling.Nice post, as always, Jet.

  7. I grew up listening to Lakota stories about otters and beavers – the First People believe they have special powers over the rivers and streams. Perhaps they’re coming back has broken the drought cycle. (probably not but… who really knows)

    • The otters and beavers are movers and shakers, with their energetic drive, and their impressive nests, borrows, and/or dams that they build. I can see how they would be revered as having special powers over the rivers and streams. I liked this addition to the otter world, Jan, thanks so much.

  8. Loved this, Jet! I recently saw an adorable picture of two otters floating on their back holding hands (fins?). The caption said that pairs generally do this so they won’t float way from each other if they fall asleep.

    • I would not be surprised if you have not seen an otter, John, because they do not live in arid climates, and I think you mostly travel around in the US Southwest. If you’re ever in the north in wetter country, you might get the chance. Wonderful to get your feedback, thanks so much.

    • I agree, GP, otters always seem to be playing. Sea otters, especially, cracking open shells on their chest, and frolicking around. Thanks so much, great to “see” you today.

    • I’ve been thinking about rivers a lot lately (so much rain here in no. Calif.), and I pondered that you’ve probably seen river otters, given all the rivers you literally hang out in. So how nice for me to get confirmation here, Walt. Thanks so much for your input today, much appreciated.

    • Yes, when that otter climbed out of the water we went berserk…well, as berserk as photographers get…i.e., a gasp. Glad you enjoyed the otters, Belinda, thanks so much for your visit.

  9. The otters of any kind are very smart animals and when are in a group that are practically invincible, they could take any enemy on land or in the water. They also are very playful animals. I’ve seen them in the rainforest of the Peruvian Amazonia. Very good post my friend. 🙂

    • I read that the largest raft of otters ever seen is 2000, that was sea otters. That would definitely induce invincibility. I’m happy you enjoyed the otter post, HJ, and I like knowing that you saw otters in the Peruvian Amazonia. That’s where we saw the giant otters. Big smiles to you, and thanks.

  10. There weren’t many positives about Hurricane Harvey, but one was a result of its significant flooding. So much fresh water came down the rivers, so fast, that river otters came along for the ride and began showing up in places like marinas. At first, I thought I was seeing nutria, but a closer look made clear that we had the otters among us. When the heaved themselves up on low-riding dinghy docks, there was no question.

    Thanks for this wonderful post that brought those memories to mind. They’re wonderful creatures, and seeing them again would be a thrill.

    • I really enjoyed hearing about the river otters in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Linda. How wonderful that you were able to find a positive in this terrible disaster. My warmest thanks.

  11. How wonderful, Jet. Your photos are superb. I especially like the one with the fish in his mouth. We are fortunate enough to see otters swimming past our back yard almost every day. The only time I ever got a couple of photos was when they and their baby came to play in our dilapidated pond one day after heavy rains. I think they were hoping to find fish. Now that the pond and lanai are refurbished, of course they can’t get in which is probably lucky for our goldfish and koi, 😀

    • I am more a fan of supporting the native wildlife, and am happy to know the otters have a place to swim in your backyard, Sylvia. How wonderful that you see them almost every day.

  12. Oh! I love these guys. I think we have them here on our creek, as well as the Rogue River (for sure), but they are not easy to spot! Thanks for some superb reporting! 😀

    • Your comment brought me a smile, David. I’m glad I could share the beauties and wonder of Otto with you. I agree, so wonderful they are thriving these days. Many thanks for your visits today.

  13. I love this post!! What a magical, whimsical spotting. We are looking forward to seeing otters at our new home on a tidal marsh in Georgia!

  14. Those right-place, right-time moments are the best, Jet! What a thrill to see the otter, I even love that you saw him/her scratch its head. 😊 Wonderful shots, love the RWBlackbird flock and seeing their red shoulder epaulets in flight too!

    • You know how it is, Donna, what you call the “right-place right-time” moments. As you know, the more we are out, the more we see. I’m happy I could share our special finding with you. I was so surprised when he/she scratched its head. Something I never would’ve expected an otter to do. Warm thanks, my friend.

  15. What a surprise and what a fabulous discovery. Does Athena tire of me raving about her photos? The one looking across the water at the face of the otter is so unique. Straight to National Geographic with that one. I had no idea about watching for mud slide marks. As always busy learning every time I visit here.Likely good for dementia prevention. Besides that always a pure delight to see what you and Athena will surprise me with.

  16. Hi Jet, such an interesting write on these wonderful creatures, the otters! Great pics as well. Wildlife and nature, really great to beautify our world. 😃 Hope all is well with you. Much love to both you and Athena.

  17. This is brilliant. I’d love to see an otter. We once saw one in a lake in Myanmar. But only for maybe 30 seconds and quite far away. Thank you for sharing your encounter with the river otter 🙂

  18. oh what a thrill for you Jet! as always thank you for sharing. i learn so much from your posts. and Athena’s photography is just great! love the giant otter feasting with fish. 🙂

  19. Hi Jet, I love your homage to these playful and fun creatures. The image, “Scratching” made me smile and the one you added from Peru baring his teeth was a surprise. Also, the difference in water levels in your favorite pond. Another informative post, thanks!

    • Great to have you stop by Jane, and I enjoyed your thoughtful comment. As a California resident, you are aware of the conditions that a long-running drought can bring to the landscape, thank you. Cheers, my friend.

    • Oh I like hearing about your otters’ slides in the snow, Eliza. I have only seen them in the mud, out here in Calif., so the snow is a new image. They are indeed such playful creatures. Thanks so much for your addition.

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