San Franciscans Greet their First Otter in Decades
February 5, 2013
San Francisco’s Sutro Baths is a peaceful sort of tourist attraction. Built by former city mayor Adolph Sutro in the late 1800’s, it was the largest indoor swimming pool complex in the world until it burned to its foundations in 1966. The ruins lie humble and quiet, facing the expansive Pacific.
But this year, visitors to Sutro Baths may find something furry, cute and cuddly amidst the elegant ruins.
A young, male river otter, nicknamed “Sutro Sam”, has taken up residence in a large, spring-fed pool at Sutro Baths. Like his sea-loving cousins, Sam has adorable whiskers and a waterproof coat, but he can only live happily in fresh or brackish water.
According to the River Otter Ecology Project, no river otters have been sighted in the City of San Francisco for 50 years. Like sea otters, river otters were once nearly hunted to extinction. They also shared the fate of other river dwellers like salmon and smelt; man-made dams and canals diced and dirtied their native habitat.
However, once listed as a protected species in 1962, the river otter made a comeback throughout the Bay Area. Megan Isadore, Co-Founder and Director of Outreach and Education at the River Otter Ecology Project, is excited to see the very first one return to San Francisco.
“Having a river otter here, or indeed having river otters occur all over the Bay Area after long absence is a very good sign,” she says. Isadore goes on to explain why Sam is good news, not just for otters, but for all inhabitants of San Francisco Bay: “River otters are a sentinel species. Because of their reliance on clean water and healthy populations of fish and shellfish, they cannot persist in unhealthy watersheds.”
Basically, Sam’s presence tells biologists something about the water quality in San Francisco Bay. In this case, the prognosis is looking up: Water quality must be improving if the bay can support a happy, healthy river otter. But Isadore hopes that Sam will encourage more conservation effort, not less.
“There is still plenty of work to be done... We need to remember that the changes we humans make can and do have far-reaching effects.”
(Photo credit Jouko van der Kruijssen. More Sutro Sam photos at sfwildlife.com)