Oh, Otters!

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Holding Paws on Youtube

This 2007 youtube video shows Nyac and Milo, two Vancouver Aquarium sea otters, holding paws. This is a natural behavior for sea otters called « rafting » where they will hold paws, as two or more, so as not to drift apart when sleeping. They also rap themselves into kelp for the same reasons. Sea otters are a threatened species and need our help. Oil spills in the oceans and oil subtly seeping into our water systems are some of the greatest threats to sea otters. Nyac, the blond, female otter in the video was a rare survivor of the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, though she died in 2008 of chronic lymphocytic leukemia at the old age of 20. She was one of the last surviving sea otters of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. We need to do all we can to reduce the effects of oil in these mammals’ natural habitat. Maybe next time we have an errand to do nearby, we could walk instead of take the car. Every small act helps.

River otters live beside their water source, entering it mainly to hunt or travel, otherwise spending much of their time on land to avoid their fur becoming waterlogged. The sea otter, however, lives in the sea for most of its life, preening its dense fur to keep warm. This is one of the reasons contact with oil is so deadly for otters, provoking hypothermia or complications through ingesting the poison. They are active for hours each day, combing the beds of rivers, lakes and the ocean for food. Otters are playful animals and appear to engage in various forms of social and fun behavior for sheer pleasure, making them so endearing to humans. It is hard to believe that they were hunted almost to extinction at the beginning of last century for their fur and now they have to cope with so many other human threats.

Let me introduce you to some delightful literary otters.

Jason and the Sea Otter by Joe Barber Starkey, illustrated by Paul Montpellier

A Canadian author and illustrator combine to bring us a west coast native Indian story where the Nootka tribe live and relate harmoniously with the animal cohabitants. Stylistic Indian art, including more than one totem pole, establish Jason’s heritage. Different wildlife abounds on every illustration, enhancing our connection to the natural world. As a 30+-year-old picture book there is much more description and less action than we would find now, but for me this did not detract from the story and its message of respect for the world around us.

Jason, a young Nootka boy sets out in his dugout canoe for a day’s fishing, though unhurried he also takes many opportunities to observe and enjoy the life around him. The highlight of his day is the arrival of a confident little sea otter that Jason observes closely until the otter pup falls asleep and Jason rushes back to tell his grandfather what he has seen. His grandfather recalls the days of his grandparents when many foreigners started arriving on these shores and when the then large populations of sea otters started to decrease. Jason spent many of the following days observing this new creature and was delighted when he discovered the otter had a friend. He was so intrigued by the appearance of the second otter that in a moment of excitement he falls overboard into the glacial sea. What or who saves the day and keeps the canoe from drifting out of reach of Jason’s grasp you may be wondering? While I am not sure many local libraries would still stock this book, if you ever get the chance to read it, and the ending, I think you would be as enchanted as I was!


Otter on His Own by Doe Boyle, illustrated by Robert Lawson.

Otter pup is introduced to us as a two-hour-old wooly ball, asleep and safe on his mother’s chest. As he grows, mum feeds him and then shows him how to dive himself and find tasty urchins and clams. She shows her pup how to groom himself, dive, swim, hunt and what the dangers are in the ocean. The day arrives when curiosity gets the best of the young pup and he swims beyond the sight and sound of her mother until he has the terrifying experience of seeing a shark toss his approaching mother into the air. Battered and bruised, but otherwise unharmed, mum urges her son back into safer waters. Otter pup is most certainly awakened to the dangers of the ocean but this doesn’t deter him from setting out alone again as an almost grown pup at the end of the story. This is a great introduction for a child to the first year of an otter pup’s life, but while the shark attack is realistic and possible, a poor illustration of the mother tossed in the air (amidst other outstanding illustrations) and the question that remained as to why the shark decides to go after other prey, detracted just a little from the book’s message for me. I suspect most children would find my queries irrelevant, however, and would enjoy otter pup’s growing up story.


Oscar Otter by Nathaniel Benchley and illustrated by Arnold Label

This book was first published in 1966 but is still used in schools as a very easy reader. There are color pictures on every single page and the text is no longer than a picture book. Oscar is a river otter full of good ideas, playfulness and a sense of adventure. He and his playmates favorite game were sliding into the pool. Things are going well til beaver leaves a huge trunk in the middle of their slide and Oscar realizes if he wants to continue the game he will have to make his own bigger, better side, and why not in secret? Of course despite dad’s warnings to not wander too far, Oscar’s slide-building lead him to explore to the point of getting lost. A pretty scary encounter with a mountain lion, fox, wolf and a moose turn the adventure into more of a nightmare. Rediscovering his epic slide and a little help from the beaver ensures a happy ending and an otter that is very happy to stay close to home. 45 years on this remains an enduring favorite with beginner readers!


# 57, 58 and 59 in the There’s a Book Read to me Picture Book Challenge.

I couldn’t write about one of my favorite animals without talking about the iconic story that sparked devotion in me as a young reader to these playful, wise, friendly creatures. Tarka the Otter was written in 1927 and set in the beautiful, north Devon, Exmoor countryside, between the rivers Taw and Torridge. I think the author, Henry Williamson, would be so happy to know that after decades of virtual disappearance from the Exmoor landscape, otters are back in all the major rivers. It is an authentic story of the life, struggle and death of a real otter, Tarka, and even thinking about the book brings tears to my eyes. It is more poignant for me than many other animal classics because it is starkly true to life and valiantly tragic.


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10 Responses to Oh, Otters!

  1. Lori says:

    We love otters! I hope I can find some of these books. Thanks for sharing your story.

    You asked if the “you wouldn’t want to be” series had books written about other than US history. Absolutely. Many. It is a great series!

    • Joanna says:

      They are adorable, aren’t they, Lori?

      Thanks for the tip about the “You wouldn’t want to be” series, I shall certainly look out for some.

  2. Oh how I love otters! (And they were Mum’s favorite animal, as well. She loved the way they got rid of all the mess from eating, simply by rolling over in the water — she wished it was as easy for us!)

    So enjoyed seeing these books pop up in your reviews!

    We do indeed need to be mindful of caring for wildlife such as otters — thank goodness they’ve been brought back from the brink, but obviously more needs to be done.

    I must add Tarka to my to-read list.

    Thank you!

    • Joanna says:

      I love your Mum’s take on otter’s wisdom. Seems like the river otters aren’t doing too badly, but the sea otters off the Pacific coast are still considered threatened, so in need of our care and watchfulness. It is very rare, also, to be able to reintroduce otters to the wild if they have had much human contact.

      Tarka the Otter is very moving, but be prepared with your kleenex, as it has that dark realism of the natural world found in books like Watership Down!

  3. Diane says:

    What beautiful books, thankyou Joanna. I love watching these critters in Zoo enclosures, they are such fun. It is believed in NZ they arrived by boat, named Waitorke. But one believes it is just a myth.
    I came across an article while looking up otters here in NZ and found this… such a sad newsclip.

    • Joanna says:

      Aw, though sad, the news story was very touching too, demonstrating how social these animals truly are. Just like humans, it isn’t unusual for long term partners/friends to die shortly after each other, not bearing to be apart. Though one hour is truly extreme!

  4. I confess that I am not much into animal stories, but your feature on otter and Lori’s piece on horses (also for the Picture Book challenge) have been making me rethink my original bias. I should really explore this more. The otter stories sound heartwarming. I truly love the way you can capture the essence of the book in a few sentences, truly wonderful. Gives me a clear sense of what to expect from the books.

  5. Patricia Tilton says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your research on otters — it’s obvious they are a passion for you. I loved your choices of books and I did like Jason and the Sea Otter, because it was so different. The focus on action to show a story, does take away from some of the storytelling of native tribes. Otter on his own caught my attention because as Myra says, you are a master at capturing the essence of a story in your reviews. Truly a talent. Loved the post!

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