UPDATE: Rare River Otter Found Living in San Francisco's Sutro Bath Ruins (Photos)

© Jaymi Heimbuch

UPDATE: The story of this river otter has begun to hit the news wires with surprising frequency. Seems everyone is fascinated by the surprising new resident of San Francisco. Someone even set up a Sutro Sam twitter stream. Read up on this interesting and adorable otter, and what his return signals for the bay area, below.

In early November, I dragged a friend out to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park during the pre-dawn hours in hopes to photograph the resident coyotes before the park filled with people. Though we spotted a pair making their morning rounds, we struck out on actually getting any images and soon enough the park was buzzing with people. In an effort to cheer me up and to make sure all the caffeine we'd consumed wasn't all for naught, she turned to me and said, "Do you want to go photograph a river otter instead?" I responded with the usual, "Of course!" and she promptly drove me to Sutro Baths, the popular water-filled ruins at the northwest end of the city.

As we looked down the hill from the parking lot into the baths -- or rather the ponds that once used to be a public swimming complex built in the late 1800s and which burned down in the 1960s -- we spotted the otter swimming around and showing off for a couple standing at the water's edge with their morning cups of coffee. And it was at this point that I realized exactly how friendly a dense urban area can be for local wildlife.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

The story of this river otter appearing in Sutro Baths made quite a splash (it's okay to roll your eyes at that pun). Used primarily for hanging around and watching sunsets, San Francisco residents never thought they'd see more than a few bird species utilizing the ponds that Sutro Baths have become. Seagulls and brown pelicans hang out along the seawall, turnstones hop along the rocks just outside while coots and ducks swim in the ponds held in by the walls, and egrets wade along the waters edge hunting fish. But for those paying attention, suddenly one day there was a decidedly non-feathered species also hunting fish and making use of the seawall as a place to sun itself.

First spotted in early October, the river otter was dubbed Sutro Sam. Wildlife photographers have had a great time watching his antics and so too have the local otter spotters working with the River Otter Ecology Project. But Sutro Sam is a big deal for more than just an unusual species that has moved into the city. His presence shows what an incredible comeback river otters have made after disappearing entirely from the bay area for at least three decades.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

SFGate reports, "Otters were once found in almost every creek and lake in Northern California, but their numbers seriously dwindled until the 1970s because of hunting, habitat loss and pollution. Particularly harmful was mercury, which seeped into the crayfish, clams, mussels and other shellfish that otters dine on. But the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, California environmental laws, antihunting regulations and open space preservation have helped make the waterways more hospitable for otters. They're still threatened, but they appear to be rebounding, biologists said."

© Jaymi Heimbuch

In order to get more data for the otter populations in the Bay Area, the River Otter Ecology Project encourages the help of citizen scientists, local folks who act as otter spotters and record the who/what/when/where/how of any otters they manage to see. Collecting data and compiling information like food sources, breeding habits, and population trends will help biologists better understand how the river otter species is recovering in the area.

Megan Isadore, a naturalist who helped launch the River Otter Ecology Project, told ABC news in October, "It turns out there is almost nothing known about their populations or their ranges."

© Jaymi Heimbuch

It is believed that Sutro Sam is from the population of river otters that have made their home up the coast in a lagoon along Rodeo beach -- a much more rural and wild area. In this lagoon and other locations around the Bay Area, around 150 river otters have been identified. Sam may have wandered down to find his own territory or simply a supply of fish he can call all his own.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Gregarious and confident, the river otter had no qualms letting people get relatively close, stare, point, take photographs, and watch him do his thing. However, residents are reminded to keep their distance and keep their dogs on leash as they walk through the area. River otters are cute, but they also pack a ferocious bite and aren't afraid to fight to protect themselves.

Though he has made himself at home for the last few months, Sutro Sam may not be there much longer. River otters have voracious appetites and it's surprising that the ponds have enough fish to sustain him for this long. Also, otters are social creatures so he may leave to seek the company of others especially as breeding season is approaching, which runs from December to April.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

In the mean time, seeing Sutro Sam at the baths has reminded San Francisco residents about how important it is to keep even urban areas wildlife-friendly, and about what a difference cleaning up watersheds makes for wildlife, including the charismatic river otter. Improving the watersheds has created a success story for this species that can inspire additional clean-up projects.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Tags: Animals | Conservation | longreads

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