Does it sound like bragging when I say that I knew San Francisco’s celebrity otter before he was famous? A video posted on Bay Nature last fall led me to the Sutro Baths -- a 19th-century swimming complex built on the coast and abandoned in the 1960s -- in search of a male river otter who had been spotted hanging around the ruins. I headed out one day in early November, when the place was nearly deserted. As I jumped from the concrete ledge of a spring-fed pool, a woman talked loudly on her cell phone at the far end. On the ledge that runs parallel with the surf, a soon-to-be bride in a strapless white wedding dress kissed her betrothed as a photographer snapped their picture at sunset.
I scanned the main pool and the wetland reeds for 30 minutes. Nothing. I reluctantly gave up when it grew almost too dark to see. Halfway up the hill to the parking lot, I looked down on the pool one last time and saw a nose sliding through the water, trailed by a silent wake. I hurried down the trail and jumped up on the ledge, but four brown pelicans floating at the center of the pond were the only wildlife in sight. Then, the birds flew away in a startled rush, and I knew I had found the otter.
“Sutro Sam,” as the local media later dubbed him, paddled stealth-like across the pool and climbed up on a ledge five feet from me. Though it was dark, I could make out the shape of his head and see that his fur was lighter on the neck and chest. He rolled around, scratched his back on the jagged cement, and fluffed his fur. It was clear he was aware of my presence and didn't seem shy. If anything, he seemed to be showing off. No wonder all of San Francisco has fallen in love with him.
Adorable as he was, I kept my distance. But since news of Sutro Sam hit newspapers and blogs earlier this month, not all of his fans have used good sense. Within a day of Associated Press and Los Angeles Times stories, the National Park Service received reports that people were trying to get close enough to hand him food -- at the risk of getting bitten themselves. Some said they wanted to feed him because he looked hungry, and one admirer brought a wrapped fish from a high-end market. Others encouraged their dogs to swim with the otter; they said he looked lonely.
"It became clear that we needed to take steps," says Bill Merkle, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service. Officials posted signs to remind the public to "keep wildlife wild" and installed barricades to steer people and dogs away from the eastern edge of the pond, an area that includes the otter's burrow and a small wetland that provides habitat for other wildlife.
Merkle understands why people want to see Sam. One of the perks of his job is an office near the Rodeo Lagoon in Marin County, where he watches otters through binoculars from 100 yards. "It's rare to watch an otter feed or gather vegetation for its burrow right in front of you," he told me. But although Sam might look cute, otters are aggressive predators, not pets or Disney characters. (They’re members of the weasel family, after all.) Mark Lucero with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says he has dealt with several otter attacks, including one on a 12-year-old boy who was swimming with his father in a river. Another time, two otters climbed on the back of a swimmer and gnawed off half his ear. "They are dangerous animals," Lucero told me.
Sutro Sam is the only otter that has been sighted in San Francisco, but many are showing up in the creeks, ponds, rivers, and sloughs north and east of the city. In the last nine months, Californians have posted more than 200 otter sightings on the "river otter spotter," an interactive mapping tool started by the Marin-based River Otter Ecology Project. Many of the citizen scientists said otters hadn't been seen at those sites for generations. Megan Isadore, co-founder of the River Otter Ecololgy Project, says the increase in population is likely due to healthier watersheds.
For his part, Sam couldn't have picked a better place to live. His presence in an urban national park is helping train people how to live with otters again. Otters are native to the area, but their population took a nosedive in the 20th century due to habitat loss, river pollution, and the popularity of otter fur coats. About 100 years ago, otters were a common enough sight that the San Francisco Chronicle warned city residents they would have to wait until the opening day of hunting season to shoot the bears, martens, minks, and -- yes -- river otters that encroached on their backyards. Sam can count himself lucky that the only shooters he has to worry about nowadays are carrying big lenses.
Aleta George is a freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She's a regular contributor to Bay Nature magazine and has written for Smithsonian, High Country News, and the Los Angeles Times.