The rockfish head lay in the middle of Sidney Spit Park’s hillside trail, its scales still moist, its eye clear. Puzzled, my new acquaintances stared at the unlikely object. As they looked around for the culprit, I could see them wondering who had left this here on the otherwise pristine trail? Perhaps they imagined it was me. After all, there were only two boats at the dock: theirs and mine.
As it turned out, I knew exactly how that fish head got onto the trail. I’d spent the night at the dock, while the other crew spent theirs on the hook, so I was the one awakened by the culprits, just before dawn. That was when I heard splashing and a curious muffled, huffing sound. Peeking out of my cockpit tent, I spotted a troop of lithe, inquisitive river otters. After trying to knock some invertebrates off the pilings, the otters rampaged down the dock, sniffing at my tent, wrestling with each other, and tearing apart a rockfish they’d rounded up. Then, done with the dock, they headed to the trail up the bluff. I guess they’d decided the fish head was no longer part of their game.
Weighing in at 20 to 25 pounds, river otters aren’t much bigger than the average dog. But because of their sharp teeth and wily ways, sailors should never try to initiate contact with one, despite their playful cuteness. River otters live in most of the rivers in the Pacific Northwest, but don’t let their name confuse you; otters inhabit a surprising number of marine environments, ranging from the brackish Columbia River Estuary to small islands out in the Salish Sea. They’re entirely carnivorous and from my observations, don’t have a problem finding things to eat. They make catching crabs, crayfish, mollusks, and fish look like child’s play.
One downside for us humans is the resulting spraints (that’s the fancy word for otter poop). Rank smelling, they are mushy and full of bones and bits of shells. If you’re lucky enough to own a dock, or to moor your boat at a marina, you may suffer from this issue more than day sailors, since depositing those spraints seems to be a way for otters to mark territory, or at the very least is another of their mischievous traits.
When I told my acquaintances the story of the otters, they looked at me with mild disbelief, but finding no other logical answer, they just grinned. Fish heads and smelly spraints aside, like children, otters are hard to hold a grudge against. Relentlessly cheerful, their antics enliven in the greyest days, bringing a smile to me and my boating friends, even over a fish head they’ve decided to leave behind.