The further along we get into summer, the better the chances of seeing an otter in cottage country’s quieter lakes or rivers. As July turns into August, mother otters are moving their babies, born in the spring, out of their smaller, beaver pond nurseries and into larger lakes where there are more fishing opportunities. It’s not always otter families that forage as a unit; small “squads” of otters are known to hang out and hunt together.
Otters are among the friendliest and most playful of the mustelids (the family includes minks, badgers, fishers, and martens, among others). They’ll swim close to canoes or other slow boats, popping their heads up—hello! Underwater, they’re fierce predators—at least to fish, frogs, mussels, and sometimes ducklings. They’re as strong as seals at swimming, thanks to a streamlined body; they’re very stealthy; and they can strike like lightning. An otter can hold its breath for four minutes underwater, just one of the reasons it’s designed for the life aquatic.
The other reasons? Otters have long whiskers, and they put them to good use, detecting vibrations in the water. This allows them to hone in on movement—which could mean possible prey—even in murky environments. They also hunt at night, and under the ice in winter. Add to that eyes specialized to see well underwater, and ears and noses that can close to block out water.
Otters are the class clowns of the weasel family. They’ll “play” tag, wrestle each other, bounce pebbles in their paws, as if juggling, and slide on their bellies down muddy or snowy slopes. Whee! All this behaviour is probably not just for fun, say biologists. It serves a purpose: sliding allows them to travel efficiently; playing with pebbles—tossing them in the air, diving for them—could mimic hunting behaviour, according to some research.