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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Slip-Sliding Away

Air Date: Week of

A river otter pokes his head out of the water. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

River otters tend to avoid human contact, but Living on Earth’s Explorer-in-Residence Mark Seth Lender shares a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with the elusive creatures.


CURWOOD: River otters are a rather elusive creature, as they typically avoid human contact. The best way to find them is to wait for them to find you, as Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender discovered on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

LENDER: On the far side of the pond bubbles braille the surface, cerulean blue, soft as morning stars.

Half Light.

The air is still.

The lilies rustle, their posted buds stirred by a breeze of water sway like channel markers.


Just off shore.

Someone breaking fast. Leisurely. Jaws worked in a whisper reaching across the silence there.

Then rolls. And dips. And gone.

A beaver lodge stands nearby. They built this pond but that was no beaver. The texture of his fur, the shape and the way he moved. The smoothness of the dive and how the surface rose and closed, a navel of water; and what it brings to mind.

That surface, opaque as skin, blind to what lies beneath:

Patience… Patience…

The crease of a wake.

No sound.

A head appears -

Oiled. Sleek. Coat as silky as a Tonkinese all umber and burnt ochre. Whiskers. Dark eyes. Fearless. That broad Boy Cat face so close –

River otter!

And my heart leaps. And every hair stands. I too am fearless I am soaring I see what I was sure I would never see again...

River otters tend to shy away from humans. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

June 3rd, 1984:

We are making our way down to Herring Creek where the water rushes through the narrows on the changing of the tide, Squibnocket Pond pouring into Menemsha, the herring swimming in place in the current made by the flow. Across the waterway snowy egrets, bronzed by the ending of the day are gathering in the tall trees for sleep; Black-crowned night herons roost in the scrub below, restless to begin their night of hunting. We’d just met, Valerie and me, our first time together longer than a cup of coffee.

“Goldfinch,” I point him out. The bright yellow trace in his free and unpredictable flight. The cry of osprey; kingfisher hovering; mute swans in V formation and the whistling of their wings.

And then -

Round the corner of the creek one-two-three-four river otters in slipstream swimming towards us. Ignoring our presence they come, only feet from where we stand, chasing the herring for the pure pleasure of it, catching none, the fish swirling in a terror, the otters circling and circling and their mother’s wallering call like the laughter a walrus might make, so guttural and deep in the throat for the size of her.

And my heart is pounding, my hands shake, and all I can say is, “You’ll never see this again, this is once in a lifetime, you’ll never see this again…”

And here, again.

Otter having had his long look turns away. Now the sleek head now the long back now the thickness of his tail slipping beneath. And reappears. And looks again dives again, resurfaces, This time with a bullfrog in his mouth. It dangles as if forgot, his gaze fixed on me. And then and for the last time slides below leaving a silence so profound neither speech nor written word can break it. The only river otter in the quarter century from then, till now.

Valerie claims she knew she would marry me when she saw me, in my new plaid shirt, leaning against the doorway watching her from across the room. But I know it was among river otters, as if we were the reason for their coming and lingering, in perfect confluence with the arc of our lives to come.

Will I mark the otter as Meton marked the cycle of the moon, a slow and infinite repeating over time? Or will it fade.

Be brave.

CUROOD: That’s Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender. For photos, swim on over to the Living on Earth website, LOE dot org.



Visit Mark Seth Lender’s website


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