Rare San Francisco river otter stumps researchers

View Comments
River otter

River otter (AP Photo)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — For the first time in decades, a river otter has made San Francisco its home, taking up residence in the ruins of a 19th Century seaside bath near the Golden Gate Bridge.

The otter has mystified and delighted conservationists since, who are piecing together clues to figure out how he got there. The whiskery creature was first spotted by birdwatchers in September.

River otters once thrived in the San Francisco Bay area. But development, hunting and environmental damage in the 19th and 20th centuries has taken its toll on the once thriving local population.

A group called the River Otter Ecology Project studies otter populations further north and in the bay. It says until now it had no evidence the creatures had returned to San Francisco.

The otter is nicknamed “Sutro Sam” after the old baths, which were named after former San Francisco Mayor Adolph Sutro, who built the building which at the time was an engineering marvel.

The facility opened in 1896 on a cliff facing the Pacific Ocean, its baths fed by the salty ocean tides and a freshwater seep. They were torn down and burned in a fire in 1966, and the building’s carcass has long been a tourist draw on the city’s rugged, western shoreline.

The aquatic mammal seems to have found the mix of the environment he needs to make a home, to the delight of tourists and local nature lovers.

“They do need freshwater to drink and keep their fur clean,” Megan Isadore, director of outreach and education for the river otter group. “They are also happy in salt and brackish water — wherever there is food — and he is getting freshwater from seeps behind the baths.”

River otters can be found in other regions of the San Francisco Bay area. To the north of the Golden Gate, the researchers are tracking a group in Marin County. They have also found river otters in shore-side San Francisco Bay area communities of Alameda, Richmond and Martinez.

“Habitat destruction had an impact on the river otters,” said Dorren Gurrola, a science teacher at the Marine Mammal Center. “So it’s always exciting to see these animals return to their habitat.”

Young males like Sam often are the ones that travel away from groups, looking for food. If they find a new, hospitable habitat, others including females may join and create the basis of a new colony, Gurrola said.

While there is no certain reason for Sam’s appearance in San Francisco, Isadore and biologists working to unlock more clues have some leads to go on.

He could have swam across the bay’s mouth from Marin County, and scat collected from Sam will be analyzed to see if there’s a genetic link to that population. But now, Sam seems to be happy swimming around and munching on small fish, including goldfish discarded in the area.

“We’re just trying to piece things together in a logical way,” Isadore said. “River otters sometimes even stow away on boats, we just don’t know.”

View Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 28,189 other followers