It was fairly early in the morning by winter standards, the sun and been up for less than an hour. I was walking the towpath – which isn’t quiet. A chap ahead of me whipped out his phone, slowed down and appeared to be filming, so I started looking around to see what he’d seen. I was hopeful it would be an otter. Filming otters in the canal has become something we do in Stroud.
He pointed out where the otter had gone, and then when she came back, he made sure I’d seen her before he headed off for work. I’m pretty sure the otter was female, based on size, and the probability – because this is the second otter sighting on the same few miles of canal in a matter of weeks – that she’s working a smaller area than a male would.
I followed the otter for a while. She was hunting, making big ripples each time she went underwater. The distinctive bubble trails looked more random as she chased fish, and when she didn’t make a catch, her time above the surface was brief. I realise how easy it would be to walk past a hunting otter, but now I know what to watch for I may see her more often.
On one occasion, she surfaced just a few yards from where I was stood, and looked at me. It was just the two of us, and we shared a long moment of eye contact. It is a powerful thing, to find nature looking back at you. When anything looks back, it creates feelings of intimacy and engagement. We stop being observers of the scene and become participants in it. The otter showed no signs of being bothered by me, and having checked me out, she got back to the import business of breakfast.
I was able to point the otter out to a dog walker. She’d never seen one before and didn’t know they are in area, and it was clearly a moment for her. The next passerby had a camera and stopped to film, and I left him with her, confident that anyone else going by and paying attention would be alerted to the otter by his presence.
I love the way these encounters allow people who are strangers to each other to engage and communicate as well. Those of us who get about on foot will often greet or acknowledge each other as we pass, and maybe even exchange a few words, but an otter encounter draws people together. We’re better humans when we have other creature to connect and engage with. We’re better humans when we’re showing each other where the otter went, or making sure someone else sees the kingfisher. The world is a kinder, happier place when you can stop a random stranger to point out the heron, or the cormorant in the tree, or the fox in the field opposite, or whatever it is today.
When we make environments that exclude other forms of life, we’re less happy, less well, less able to connect with each other.