River Otters: Back on the Bay Area Map

river otter
Have you seen a river otter? Add your sighting to the Otter Spotter map. Photo credit: sfwildlife.com.

River otters are making a come back to the Bay Area! Learn more about these amazing creatures from Megan Isadore of The River Otter Ecology Project. 

Like many kids, I fell in love with river otters through “Ring of Bright Waters,” the movie about Mij, a playful, lovable and beloved otter brought to Scotland from Iraq by Gavin Maxwell. All I wanted was a baby otter or a few, a house on the Scottish coast and lots of books.   Skip forward more years than I could wish, to 2016, and I’m researching the return of river otters in the SF Bay Area, and living on another spectacular coast. While I don’t have my own river otter, I have something better for otters and all of us – an organization that supports wetland restoration and watershed conservation, with the river otter as our enchanting ambassador.

River otters were historically present in California as far south as San Luis Obispo, but their numbers diminished by the 20th century, probably due to poor water quality, habitat loss and fur trapping. Their recent return to our local Bay Area watersheds is a sign of environmental success and a reason for faith in the efficacy of restoration efforts. Launched in 2012, The River Otter Ecology Project is the only organization in Central California to research and link river otter population recovery to watershed health and conservation.

Otter Spotters

Our programs include a citizen science “Otter Spotter” program, through which we collect information about otter sightings from all over the Bay Area. To date, we have received over 1600 sightings, ranging from the coastal Sonoma to the South Bay. It appears that river otters are expanding their range from the North and the Delta, through the East Bay and southward.

How can you contribute to our Otter Spotter map? Look for river otters in any local waterway, including rivers, bays, wetlands, ponds and even the ocean! If you see otter/s, you can input your sightings on the interactive form (in English and Spanish) on our website. We welcome photos and video. Our website has lots of photos and information on otter signs and tracks, as well as field etiquette.

Another main focus is noninvasive field research, investigating population, range, behavior and seasonal prey preferences of river otters in Marin County. We use camera traps and scat collection for DNA and health analysis to begin to understand river otters’ ecological niche. We have a loyal crew of 15 volunteers who collect smelly otter scat, service trail cameras and document all our findings.  We published our first two years of research in teh Spring 2015 issue of Northwestern Naturalist, the Journal of the Society for Northwestern Vertebrate Biology. The Return of North American River Otters, Lontra canadensis, to Coastal Habitats of the San Francisco Bay Area, California is available on our website.

You “otter” know 

We also provide education for adults and children through classroom and field presentations and participating in environmental events. Look for our presentations and festivals here.

We’re very excited about our newest program, the pilot “Hands-on High School Monitoring”, which offers high school students the opportunity to learn science and field-science concepts, teamwork and communications while expanding ROEP’s monitoring sites. Students and teachers monitor a camera site and collect and document data and samples. Our first class, led by teacher Christian Naventi and Star Academy, has been getting their feet wet with two camera traps at Las Gallinas Sanitary Ponds in San Rafael. On their first trip, they saw four otters and watched as one caught and ate a coot!

The pure joy happens in the field…the thrill of watching otter families raise their young, hunt, play, socialize, interact with other wildlife in my home watershed over months and years has been like none other. Getting up before dawn to catch sight of otters and follow them along bluffs as the sun rises, watch the pups learn to fish and even catch shorebirds, see them roll for minutes at a time along a sandy shore makes me abidingly happy. For me, it’s the privilege of a lifetime to observe my home watershed over the course of years, get to know all the life within it as my neighbors, and share that joy with others, that we all may become better stewards of our planet.

– Megan Isadore

Megan Isadore is one of the founders and Executive Director of The River Otter Ecology Project.   She is still in love with otters, books, art and everything in the natural world except mosquitoes (though she admits that perhaps they have their place too).