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River otters are here to stay — at the Aquarium of the Bay

by on July 03, 2013

Photo courtesy of Aquarium of the Bay.
Photo courtesy of Aquarium of the Bay.

A new North American river otter exhibit at the Aquarium of the Bay proves that sometimes a good cause just needs the right representative. To make visitors aware of the benefits of a clean watershed, the Aquarium has prepared a 1,000 square-foot  habitat for three rascally river otters named Shasta, Tubbs, and Wildcat.

The exhibit first opened to the public last Friday after almost two months of preparation, and the otters were an immediate hit with visitors, who eagerly followed their every move. Outfitted with flowing pools, trees, and shady alcoves, the exhibit was painstakingly crafted to be, in the words of public relations coordinator Mallory Johnson, a “local watershed destination.”

“What makes them such great ambassadors (for the watershed) is how fun and playful they are,” said Johnson. “We’re really excited to have them here.”

Another otter at the Aquarium. Photo: Kevin Camora.

Another otter at the Aquarium. Photo: Kevin Camora.

In some places, such as in Marin County, river otters are making a resurgence. With hikers and sightseers providing the brunt work, the River Otter Ecology Project has tracked otter movements across the Bay Area. Many inhabit Marin’s western coast, and one has even taken up residence at Sutro Baths in San Francisco. Famously known as Sutro Sam, this ambitious river otter is thought to have braved the San Francisco Bay by crossing at the Golden Gate, and has created a buzz among locals and tourists alike. Thanks to Aquarium, seeing river otters just got a little bit easier.

Yet despite these encouraging signs, otter populations in California and the Bay Area are already much depleted. While not endangered, habitat loss and pollution are still major threats to our peaceful coexistence. To bring awareness to the issue, the Aquarium of the Bay named each of their three new inductees for local watershed landmarks: Shasta for Mt. Shasta in Siskiyou, Tubbs for Tubbs Island in Sonoma, and Wildcat for Wildcat Creek in San Pablo.

But environmental degradation isn’t the only threat to river otters, and it isn’t the reason Shasta, Tubbs and Wildcat were saved. Hailing from Louisiana, these otters were discovered and saved by professional trappers from the fur trade.

Sutro Sam became a hit after he made a home at Sutro Baths in San Francisco. Photo: David Cruz.

Sutro Sam became a hit after he made a home at Sutro Baths in San Francisco. Photo: David Cruz.

“We couldn’t believe that there even was a fur trade anymore,” Johnson exclaimed, explaining that because the otters feast on cultured crayfish, an industry worth almost $200 million in Louisiana, they’re considered pests. In order to curb their numbers, the fur trade has remained legal in Louisiana.

After the decline of sea otter and lion populations along the West Coast in the early 1800s, trappers in the fur trade began to target inland species, including beavers, foxes, and river otters. The otters were especially prized for their velvety pelts — they have 156,000 hairs per square inch. That’s more than an entire human head, and this caused their pelts to become the luxury good that, in some places, it still is today.

Luckily for the Aquarium’s three new adorable ambassadors, they have received immunity from that fate. Aside from the occasional temporary changes, the otters will be permanent fixtures of the Aquarium.

Want to learn more before relaxing with the otters and learning from the docents? Read up on your otter facts here, or check out these videos produced by the Aquarium!

Jackson Mauze is a Bay Nature editorial intern. 

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Andrea on December 30th, 2013 at 3:11 pm

A River Otter was spotted (and photographed) by a friend last week in Hilltop Lake, in Richmond, CA. Could it have swam all the way up Garrity Creek from San Pablo Bay?

I’ve been bird-watching here for 18 years, and have never seen an otter here before.

Megan Isadore on December 31st, 2013 at 11:22 am

Hi Andrea,
I’d say that’s a really good guess; the otter definitely could have swum or trotted up Garrity Creek from the Bay. River otters (as opposed to sea otters) are very agile on land as well as in water, and are very curious and surprisingly adaptable semi-aquatic mammals. Most people don’t know they can even climb trees!
Please do check out The River Otter Ecology Project, both at our website and on

Megan Isadore on December 31st, 2013 at 11:27 am

oops, to continue that comment: The River Otter Ecology Project is the first-ever SF Bay Area study of river otters. Our research includes a citizen science project where folks can input their sightings of wild river otters from our website (click on the Otter Spotter icon). We have collected over 600 sightings of river otters all over the Bay Area!
The fact that river otters are showing up in nearly every SF Bay Area watershed indicates that there is plenty of reason to be encouraged and hopeful for a future with a thriving population of otters and other watershed wildlife, as long as we continue to restore and conserve watersheds.
Keeping the wild in river otters, The River Otter Ecology Project

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