Clawless and Flawless

Clawless and Flawless

‘I never was on the dull, tame shore,
But I loved the great sea more and more.’

Barry Cornwall; The Sea (1832)

The eco-systems of planet Earth host an enormous variety of life-forms, and each system has a wealth of fauna and flora that vary almost impossibly in size, structure and ability. Here’s a scary statistic: of all the life-forms that have existed since the first germ of life sparked into existence on our planet, over 99% are now extinct. In rough terms, that is around five billion forms of life that have, for one reason or another, vanished from existence. What’s even scarier is that mankind, for entirely selfish reasons, seems hell-bent on eliminating the balance. (With the exception of those life forms we nurture, then kill for food, fun or sport.) That’s a rather disturbing thought, given that we consider ourselves the apex of all life that has existed.

Recently we had a few joyful minutes watching a cellphone-filmed encounter between two Cape clawless otters and a bemused mutt in a Greenpoint park. Considering that otters are regarded as solitary animals, and shy to boot, this was indeed an informative meeting. The sheer joy of creatures sizing each other up and reacting with delight made this event a very touching confrontation. It’s to be assumed that the otters had seen dogs before, and that these meetings have not been aggressive, allowing them to feel that they were not at risk. Whatever the history, it made for a melting moment for all concerned.

Otters are fascinating creatures, and are very lucky to still be around given man’s predilection for hunting and killing all creatures that have useful pelts. In the USA in particular, the gathering of otters’ furs was a major economic factor during the European colonisation of North America, and the otters in rivers and oceans alike were hunted remorselessly. Only when the numbers had reached a level that it was no longer economically viable to hunt them did killing activity cease, and slowly the numbers began to recover. In the 21st century we are still managing to kill them off, but these days it’s pollution and the urbanisation of their natural territories around the world that is the reason.

Otters are carnivorous mammals in the subfamilyLutrinae. There are thirteen extant species of otter worldwide, and they can be broadly divided between aquatic, semi-aquatic and marine. More simply put: land and river, river, or ocean. Here in South Africa we have the beautiful African, or Cape clawless otter. It’s a name that bears some investigation: apart from the obvious words Cape, African and clawless, ‘otter’ itself deserves mention. It is derived from the Proto-Indo-European language root ‘wódr’, which itself split over time to form the Early English ‘otor’ – our otters – and ‘water’. That otters are synonymous with water is entirely correct; when one watches them playing in rivers, dams or seas, they become one with the medium they are in.

The pelts that were so highly sought after a couple of centuries ago are vital to the Cape otters survival. Otters don’t have the seal and walrus layer of protective fat under their skins, so the cold of winter and the Atlantic waters is kept at bay by a soft, thick, layer of under-fur, which is in turn protected by a layer of ‘guard-hairs’; air is trapped between the two layers, acting as an insulation. Our Cape otters spend most of their time on the beach searching for shellfish to eat, so hot summers are a problem too. They build burrows – known as holts – which are lined with vegetation and seaweed, providing a cooling-down hideaway they can repair too for relief. Fortunately, as any local surfer will testify to, the Atlantic remains chilly all year round, so they can spend time offshore chasing small fish too. One of the otters most remarked-on characteristics is the bond between mother otter and offspring. Nobody who has witnessed the play between a mother and her pup will ever forget the scene. The two remain together for about a year before the pup is ready to forage for itself and start its own family. No Father’s Day celebrations for otters, though. Dad takes no part in the process.

Otters are among the most prized sightings on our Waterfront Charters Ocean Safaris. They propel themselves gracefully through the water with their powerful tails, or lie on their backs sunning themselves, front clawless paws poised delicately above their chests. It’s an overused expression, but it comes in very handy when viewing these amazing creatures: adorable. Join us aboard one of our purpose built Rigid-hulled inflatables (RIBs) for an eye-opening ocean safari adventure. We don’t control the creatures of the ocean – nor would we want to – so seeking out the more elusive animals is part of the fun. We don’t disturb them, but we will look after them and try to educate the world as to exactly why we need to look after the treasures that inhabit the oceans and the shorelines. Join us soon for a cruise!