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Sunday 11 May 2014



Wild otter (Lutra lutra), Loch Eil, Scotland: photo by Sheila Rogers, 22 May 2013

Very few species of animal habitually play after they are adult; they are concerned with eating, sleeping, or procreating, or with the means to one or other of these ends.  But otters are one of the few exceptions to this rule; right through their lives they spend much of their time in play that does not even require a partner.  In the wild state they will play alone for hours with any convenient floating object in the water, pulling it down to let it bob up again, or throwing it with a jerk of the head so that it lands with a splash and becomes a quarry to be pursued.  No doubt in their holts they lie on their backs and play, too, as my otters have, with small objects that they can roll between their paws and pass from palm to palm, for at Camusfeàrna all the sea holts contain a profusion of small shells and round stones that can only have been carried in for toys.

Mij would spend hours shuffling a rubber ball around the room like a four-footed soccer player using all four feet to dribble the ball, and he could also throw it, with a powerful flick of the neck, to a surprising height and distance.  These games he would play either by himself or with me, but the really steady play of an otter, the time-filling play born of a sense of well-being and a full stomach, seems to me to be when the otter lies on its back and juggles small objects between its paws.  This they do with an extraordinary concentrated absorption and dexterity, as though a conjuror were trying to perfect some trick, as though in this play there were some goal that the human observer could not guess.  Later, marbles became Mij's favourite toys for this pastime -- for pastime it is, without any anthropomorphizing -- and he would lie on his back rolling two or more of them up and down his wide, flat belly without dropping one to the floor, or, with forepaws upstretched, rolling them between his palms for minutes on end.

Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969): from Ring of Bright Water, 1960

Wild otters (Lutra lutra), mother and cub, Isle of Mull, Scotland: photo by Margaret J. Walker, 26 June 2008

Washing Off. Wild otter (Lutra lutra), preening after a crab supper, Shetland: photo by glidergoth, 23 February 2012

Shetland Otter cubs, playfighting and exploring in a rock pool while adults are off fishing in rough seas. At times they were as close as 6 feet away, but carried on playing while I took pictures: photo by John Moncrieff (Crieffie.), 16 January 2011

Shetland Otter with cub -- 1. These two always managed to stay just a bit too far out of reach, hence these are pretty big crops. Nice to see them though, lots of playing and splashing around: photo by John Moncrieff (Crieffie.), 6 May 2011

Shetland Otter with cub -- 2. Playing and splashing around. (Mainland Shetland): photo by John Moncrieff (Crieffie.), 6 May 2011

A trio of Shetland Otters. A grim day, windy and rainy, but great for spotting Otters! This family three were having a great time play-fighting and trying to fit the odd bit of food in too. Taken on Mainland Shetland: photo by John Moncrieff (Crieffie.), 23 May 2011

Otter family fun, Shetland: photo by John Moncrieff (Crieffie.), 23 May 2011

Otter and cub rolling around in the grass before heading back to sea (mainland Shetland): photo by John Moncrieff (Crieffie), 19 March 2011

Otter and cub rolling around in the grass before heading back to sea (mainland Shetland): photo by John Moncrieff (Crieffie), 19 March 2011

Contented otter, Shetland: photo by John Moncrieff (Crieffie.), 24 May 2011

Sandaig Bay, Scotland. ("Camusfearna" in Gavin Maxwell's book Ring of Bright Water and the final resting place of Maxwell and one of his otters): photo by Peter Ashby (Pegash), 1 November 2005

for Duncan Jones


Lord Charlie said...

Terrific montage. Thanks for this -- and all. David Lehman

Hazen said...

From Maxwell's observations and these wonderful pictures, it seems homo ludens has much to learn from the lutra lutra concerning culture and play.

Nin Andrews said...

Sweet! Reminds me how I used to wonder what was wrong with grownups--they could sit for so long. And to get them to DO anything interesting, now that was work. And even when you got them outside, it was "exercise" and no fun at all.

Mose23 said...

Thank you for this, Tom.

Maxwell writes about his relationship (no fear of intimacy, or subjective response) with these wonderful creatures while never giving way to sentiment. To my mind, as a writer on nature he's up there with Gilbert White.

Beautiful photos; as the population's rising over here I have strong hopes of catching sight of one of them in the wild.

TC said...

Thanks very much, David, Hazen and Nin.

Yes, in a world of nothing but games, it's strange what a difficult time adult humans seem to have with the idea of pure play.

Duncan, let it be hoped that this brief bit from the book will tempt others to share the joy you and I (and so many others) have taken from Ring of Bright Water.

It should perhaps be pointed out that the first wild otter "adopted" by Maxwell was in fact an Iraqi marsh otter -- a close relative, but not quite the same species as the native Scotland otters (which he also came to know quite well).

And what wondrous creatures all otters are.

The magnificent Enhydris lutra, or sea otter, is a marvel of wild nature, with the most durable coat and great diving ability... the dense coat protecting it in the coldest waters, but also making this animal for a time the most coveted of all hunted things -- Chinese mandarins were known to pay $100 per sea otter skin, in the 18th century. Which, given the proclivity of humans to do a deal, brought successive waves of European and Yankee traders to the Northwest Coast of this continent, and led to the brutal and tragic mass slaughter that then ensued, leaving Enhydris lutra an endangered species.


Thank heavens for its sake Lutra lutra never had quite such a rich and desirable coat.

nooshin azadi said...



i discovered
an outer
who utters
no words
and knows
no writers
just plays
in water
and never cares
if the empires


thank you, dear Tom, for this marvelous post!

Barry Taylor said...

These are wonderful creatures (and your poem at the 'Mild' link is a lovely response to their gorgeous liquidity, Tom). I'm wondering whether in the case of the sea-otter, at least, the rolling objects on the tummy behaviour that Maxwell observes may not be a way of keeping some particular feeding skills in shape, as in this clip:

Not that I don't want us to hang on to as many images of pure, motiveless play as we can muster. And in that spirit - nooshin, the play of sound in outer>utters>writers>water> totter, where the otter finally comes out of hiding, is just terrific. Thanks all - seriously good fun.

nooshin azadi said...

thank you very much dear Barry for encouraging crow! :)
great teachers like Tom know how to drop a pebble in the pond to make ever-expanding ripples...

tpw said...

Thanks, Tom, for reminding us of the amazing & entertaining otter. There's a well-known reel called "The Otters Holt"---lively & playful like the creature himself:

Dalriada said...

Otters are great fun to watch but there again so are squirrels and the locals here often refer to them as tree rats!

Not the only one

tied to a circus horse Not of any
great moment: that is
more like the cheap accompaniment ‒ brassy
yet thin

How can anyone enjoy this?

And pay anyway
assume the position

Suddenly vulnerable
welling up from someplace

All morning as if to
but whether to?
Eyes roll back
This clown just can’t stop grinning
and this one

paints crude tears
down his face
Signs with a small cross
where the heart ought to be

TC said...

Thanks all!

A quick entry to all the swell links we've been given:

Sea Otter Using Tool to Open Clams

The Jam: That' s Entertainment

The Bothy Band: Three Reels; with the Otter's Holt Being the Third

I suspect Barry has a point about the usefulness of the tummy for an otter. Perhaps much good fun has its origins in practicality.

If the otter were to know its own entertainment value, there would undoubtedly be agents in this picture, in a Shetland minute. But would an otter care?

just plays
in water
and never cares
if the empires

TC said...

Still -- reflecting a bit further on Nooshin's lovely poem -- while it's certain that otters don't care about empires, it's equally certain (dolorous historical fact, impossible not to remember) that empires have occasionally cared about otters; not, of course, as the beautiful, intelligent creatures they are, but as objects of acquisition and use.

As far as the sea otter goes, the famous Westward Course of Empire was the Big Careless Driver that ran it over. A very sad story, that.

Empire of Skin

Perhaps some indication of Empire's general unconcern, even in alleged "environmentally concerned" sectors -- environmental concern is of course trumped every time out by bottom-line business instinct -- might be found in the disappointment elicited by one bookstore buyer who reported, with some impatience, that copies of the book had been ordered, but then promptly returned to the publisher, on grounds that the title amounted to a "bait and switch".

"I ordered it because it sounded like a sex book."

No such luck, no sales, no hope, but maybe the clueless author could pick up a counter job at the convenience store at Marine World.

nooshin azadi said...

a tinge of seriousness rightfully added to this playful post...
think now my experience is doubled!

those who don't care about history, repeat it... more tragically!

i'm sure your book reveals lots of things about human nature through a journey into fur trade...