The sea is cold and quiet these weeks; a freshening visit to the shore seems for many unnecessary with endless icy weather streams from the North. Marine life is consulted and found through other means in spells such as these. One such mammal which is represented in more than its fair share of poetry and literature is the otter whose scientific name is the musical Lutra lutra and occasionaly better known in the West as the not very wild sounding water-dog. West Mayo’s sometimes resident Michael Longley highlighted some of its ecology to conclude a poem about mortality when he wrote:
I watched a dying otter gaze right through me
At the islands in Clew Bay, as thought it were only
Between hovers and not too far from the holt.
The holt being its home constructed in the river bank and a hover a resting place for passing a part of the day. Lutra lutra is one of our most intriguing marine animals perhaps because it is not marine at all. It has a cousin which is restricted to the sea, the Californianotter, but Ireland’s otter is as terrestrial as we are. Its forays to the shore are a consequence of living beside the tide and if it is born to an inland holt it will only know the bog runs and freshwater streams of that area. Its diet is also as varied as ours and will switch from fish to shellfish and urchins if availability is low which increasingly happens due to coastal pollution. A study of otter spraints (droppings) in Clare Island in 2007 by a student of NUIG’s department of Zoology suggested seaweed may even be a part of diet at times.
Their mystery and strong lore may also stem from their impressive elusiveness. I can count with two sightings: one jumping in the kelp on a sheltered shore; another running bravely along an exposed beach and ultimately into the small waves where it faced us and mocked my curious dog.
If the halting northeasterlies turn back to the southwest quarter and the shore is welcoming again, look for the otter in areas where freshwater comes close to the sea. The otter needs to rinse the salt from its dense fur after a fishing session to maintain the fur’s insulation property, so the low duachs west of Louisburgh or townlands beginning with Barna- (Barna means passage to the sea as Gaeilge) are good places to catch one returning from the tide at sunset.