September 14, 2015

Pity the poor otter

SOMETIMES, when I’m feeling emotional, I feel quite sorry for those of you who haven’t yet experienced the delights of the San Juan Islands of Washington state, and their northern continuation, the Canadian Gulf Islands. For some reason, we don’t hear much about this sleepy, largely undeveloped archipelago of state parks and cozy anchorages. It doesn’t generate the publicity some other parts of the country enjoy, despite the fact that boating is big business here. Some of the largest sailboat charter companies in the country are located in the fascinating area known as the Salish Sea, which, of course, includes Puget Sound.

Here and there you’ll come across bustling resort harbors such as Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor where you can refuel, reprovision, and indulge in highly civilized gustation, but in the main the mantle that lies over these welcoming islands is one of peace and tranquility. Here the stars actually blaze at night and the moon throws solid black shadows on the deck.

The air that drifts off the islands smells sweetly of pine. The aspect that greets your eye is almost exactly the same, in most cases, as it was hundreds of years ago, when Native Americans plied these waters in their dug-out canoes. They still do, as a matter of fact, but now only occasionally, and for ceremony and pleasure rather than for a living.

The roiling currents provide a fecund, fertile habitat for a host of sea creatures ranging from whales, orcas, porpoises, and seals to geoducks, mussels, and those famous Dungeness crabs.

We have seen ospreys and puffins, eagles by the dozen, seagulls by the thousand, and even the shy, dainty phalarope. I had wanted to see a phalarope ever since the late Alan Paton wrote a novel called Too Late the Phalarope, and one calm day in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, my wife June and I came across a small tight-knit group of them floating on the water, fluttering and agitated for no reason we could discover, except that they might have been in a feeding frenzy.

But the sight that sticks on our minds right now is that of a tiny otter living on the Canadian side of the border, near South Pender Island. We cruised up to within a few yards of him before we could make out what was happening. He was lying on his back, clutching to his chest a small fish, and trying to take bites out of it. But he was surrounded by half a dozen large seagulls, all floating on the surface, jostling each other, pecking voraciously at his fish and trying to wrestle it away from him. Time after time he would submerge with his meal to get rid of the gulls, but he couldn’t stay under for long and as soon as he reappeared the birds would fly over with great squawks of indignation and continue the assault with their strong, sharp beaks.

I don’t know how that particular battle ended, because we soon drifted away, but we couldn’t help feeling sorry for that sweet little otter, outnumbered as he was. It wasn’t a fair fight, but of course Nature knows nothing about fairness, only survival and extinction, so even if we could have weighed in on the side of the otter it probably wouldn’t have made much difference to the Great Scheme of Things.

It makes me wonder about seagulls, though. They’re such shameless scavengers; rats with wings, really. How is it that they were given such desirable gifts? They’re beautiful to look at. Their flying skill is wonderful to behold. They can swim in water and walk on land.

Something unfair here, surely? Especially if you’re a decent law-abiding otter just trying to eat a peaceful lunch.

Today’s Thought

For nature is one with rapine, a harm no preacher can heal,

The Mayfly is torn by the swallow, the sparrow speared by the shrike,

And the whole little wood where I sit is a world of plunder and prey.

— Tennyson, Maud


“What’s your opinion of bathing beauties?”

“Dunno. My wife’s never let me bathe one.”

1 comment:

Matt said...

I'm blessed to live in that area, on the Canadian side. It really is a wonderous place

(except for Roche Harbor - the one time I was there my Commonwealth-inclined, ordered mind was horrifed at the riotious mess of seaplanes, kayakers, anchored boats and people (like myself) desperately trying to find the customs dock)