The North American River Otter is a frequent sighting in the Harbor Isle neighborhood. They sometimes appear in our yards, but more frequently, in our storm drains and in and around the waters of Harbor Isle. The river otters’ range can span over 40 miles of waterway, however, due to the limited available habitat in Pinellas County, their range is considerably smaller here. In order to support their high metabolism, river otters are constantly on the move throughout the day. Their diet consists primarily of fish and crustaceans. The most frequent mode of transport for the otter in our neighborhood is through our storm drain system. Their heads can often be seen popping in and out of the entrances to our storm drains. They also use the large-scale storm drain system throughout St. Petersburg to travel from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Although they appear to be cute, cuddly and playful, river otters are wild animals and should not be approached. During my 31 years living in Harbor Isle, I have been “attacked” by river otters on two occasions. Both incidents occurred while I was wading in chest-deep water near the mangroves, and both involved an element of surprise.
The first incident occurred when I rounded a mangrove point coming face-to-face with a mother otter and her two pups at approximately eye level. The mother, within two feet of my face, snarled, but did not bite – then turned and fled with her pups.
During the second incident, I was also up to my chest in water in my backyard when I saw a large, somewhat dark shape swimming towards me at a high rate of speed. I assumed it was a large snook, but when it stuck it’s head out of the water right next to me and snarled, I realized it was an otter. I think the otter was shocked to see a human being in “his” territory! Again, I was not bitten, but it made a threatening growl within several feet of my face.
Generally, however, otters are shy creatures and tend to avoid humans. For those of you who leave your bait buckets full of shrimp off your dock and wake up the next morning to discover your bait is gone – the river otter was the most likely culprit. I no longer leave a bait bucket off my dock, as even if I lock it the otter is able to unlock it. Tying it shut with rope is useless – it will bite right through the rope to get to the shrimp. My father discovered that tying the bait bucket with wire will prevent the otter from being able to get inside (over the years, otters in Harbor Isle have been trained to know that a yellow bait bucket is the source of a free shrimp dinner!).
Until the recent algae bloom, otters were frequent residents of the Harbor Isle lake. Hopefully as the lake quality continues to improve, we will be seeing more of them again. Otters are an integral part of our aquatic ecosystem in Florida, and it is important that those remaining are able to thrive in their natural habitat.
So, the next time you are strolling through the streets of Harbor Isle and notice a face peering at you from the storm drain, don’t be alarmed – it’s just your “friendly” neighborhood otter, native to Florida but to be observed from a distance!