The whole river surface shivered.
Ripples sweeping outward, catching light and swirling bubbles. Through the brambles and twigs I see her flip out of the water like a slim torpedo. She's porpoising. Upstream, purposeful, not wasting an ounce of energy on anything else but her foraging journey. She's working the underbank, alone, disappearing, teasing the eye. But she can't hide her wake.
What is it about these encounters?
This morning I was on my way back home, one eye still sweeping the water. Distracted by a great spotted woodpecker drumming high in the branches of an oak, and an ear to the warblers, nose attuned to the mulch, my breath and heartbeat matched the footfall and mingle of all this, then there she was.
It was 10am. The meandering walk was nearly over. I'd clocked the first little white petals of the wood anemone, the poking tongues of wild garlic all over the bank, the buds no longer resisting the cold but beginning to fill with sap. Watery sunlight breaking through misting cloud. The ducks muttering, then alarmed. You can depend on the water birds to give away an otter.
The wake widens as she moves across the current and pauses midstream to eat something. She's surrounded by encircling ripples as the water shivers outward from her form. It glitters behind her, ruffles each time she pauses. The stillness of this morning, no breeze, and low, lazy water mean that I can see every single movement. Now she's a lissom backwash and she's away, far too busy to notice me. Her bubbles rise in a wobbly fizz each time she dives, so I can get her close in the sights of my new Leica binocs each time she surfaces.
There she blows, crystal clear, close-up, smooth as a piece of the river itself. The otter is water, she's the colour and shape of it, a slip of current, but powerful against it as she slides upstream.
Why is my heart beating so fast, every cell in my body zinging with something I recognise and yet don't quite know?
On one level, it's the punch-the-air moment of Yes! Success! Wait till I tell everyone!
On the other hand, it's something much more than this. We evolved with these animals; somewhere way back, there's a common ancestor. There's kinship, but there's also a recognition that goes far deeper than anything I can really explain. Is it that my body remembers its own wildness, somewhere in its cells, in its genetic memory?
If it's not this, then why does it feel this way? Why are these encounters so exhilarating?
Yesterday I had a message from my friend Mark Cocker reporting otters in the centre of a local town. They seemed to have lost their fear of people. The pics shown here are some of his. How long will it be before these centre-of-town otters get wise and remember to be properly wild, I wonder? Local people have taken them to heart, and these otters are true ambassadors, but the paparazzi have also arrived, and the otter below looks too busy feasting on frogs to be afraid. Never a good idea if you are an otter.. Contact between wild predators and people rarely has a positive outcome.
On the other hand, they have attracted the loving gaze of a whole town, and that can't be bad, can it?
Copyright Mark Cocker 2013
Where I live, the otters' middle name is stealth. They were ferociously hunted here, and are still extremely shy. Some still dislike them, perhaps with good reason. Otters like many predators live on a knife-edge of survival and will take an easy meal if it is on offer. So for this and many other reasons contact with us can spell danger, and the otters seem to know it. Only last week I heard of one that was shot for doing what otters do and freely feeding on somebody's fish. Two weeks ago our resident dog otter was hit and killed by a car.
The otter in Britain has the highest levels of European protection because it nearly became extinct due to human activity. Its recovery has been painfully slow and is still not secure, despite what the media tell us.
In his wonderful newly revised and updated book Otters, Paul Chanin says "There are many interesting lessons to be learned from the decline and recovery of otters. The most obvious is not to spread new chemicals throughout the environment until you thoroughly understand their effects. One sadly we don't seem to have learned yet."
Where will it end?
Otters were here first. They evolved millions of years before we did. The extraordinary question remains: why do we humans still consider it acceptable to persecute and disregard the other beings who share our planet?
Surely it shouldn't come down to money and ownership and profit. Shouldn't it be about what remains after we leave, about what we have left behind?
The whole river shivered. Ripples sweeping outward, catching light and swirling bubbles. Through the brambles and twigs I see her flip out of the water like a slim torpedo. She's porpoising. Upstream, purposeful, not wasting an ounce of energy on anything else but her foraging journey.
Where would we be without her?
All photos copyright Mark Cocker 2013