Photo by Heide Island

Photo by Heide Island

Whidbey’s elusive river otters: Professor to discuss study of the sleek creatures on July 17

Whidbey Island is considered a special place by many, and that goes for a particularly cute marine mammal as well.

After failing to find river otters at a planned research site in the San Juan Islands for her sabbatical, a visit to Coupeville turned the tide for comparative behaviorist Heide Island.

She found that Admiral’s Cove and its close proximity to Crockett Lake created an ideal location for the marine foraging animals at the center of her studies.

Though named river otters, these mammals live in a variety of habitats and hunt in fresh and saltwater.

Island, a professor at Pacific University in Oregon, spent the past eight months studying the creatures that call Central Whidbey home.

The Whidbey Camano Land Trust, which provided her a permit to do research on its Crockett Lake Preserve, is hosting a free talk at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 17 at the Coupeville Rec Hall. Island will discuss her findings, answer questions and let people know how they can get involved in the research.

The data collection was not always easy, and residents who would notify Island when they saw otters or their droppings were key to helping her find the elusive critters.

“It isn’t something where you just get to be Jane Goodall out in the field and they’re there,” Island said.

She observed eight otters for months, and still only had about a 25-percent success rate of seeing them when she went out. They tend not to stay in one place, are skittish and keep a low profile in the water. Sometimes she only had about two minutes of observation time before the critters were out of sight.

Photo by Heide Island

Photo by Heide Island

She confirmed five furry residents of Admirals Cove and three transient otters that recently have had overlapping territories. Four are a kinship group — a matriarch female named Patches and her three offspring. A male, named Handsome, sometimes joins the four.

Patches and her offspring hunt cooperatively. They never share food, but at least three of them often swim in a tight huddle and consume fish together.

Handsome has his own unique way to catch his food. Island said she observed him “bubble feeding;” he dives down and blows bubbles, which causes forage fish to jump out of the water, and he jumps like a porpoise after them.

Island has not read or heard of otters using this technique, which is more commonly used by harbor porpoises and seals.

Her research focuses on the choices these otters make: when they hunt in fresh water versus the marine water, what they eat and when they’re active. She compares these choices to those made by captive river otters she’s observed at the Oregon Zoo.

River otters have flexible diets, which is part of the reason they are considered a keystone species. They keep populations of bottom-feeding fish like sculpin and flatfish in control without exploiting one particular resource. Whidbey’s river otters eat some birds if they’re available as well, she said.

The mammals are also an “indicator species,” which means they’re health is a good marker for the overall health of the ecology around them.

The Admirals Cove residents seem to be healthy and, relatively speaking, somewhat friendly to each other.

“I have not seen an altercation in eight months,” Island said.

She will finish out her year-long sabbatical in mid August, but her research will continue. She has laid the foundation for a five-year longitudinal study on Whidbey. She’ll continue to sample scat and tissue sometimes found in scat to look at persistent organic pollutants and create genetic pedigrees for the local population, she said.

She will return even after she goes back to being a full-time professor in Oregon, because the area turned out not to only be special for the river otters.

“I’ve since fallen in love with this place,” Island said.

• The Otters of Whidbey Island is 6:30 p.m., July 17 at Coupeville Rec Hall. RSVP at www.wclt.org/rsvp

More in Life

Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record
If looks could kilt: Whidbey club celebrates Scottish garb

More than four dozen lads and lasses from South Whidbey are part of the Rampant Kilt Society.

Up Up Up Inc., a traveling circus on a flatbed truck stage with a crane, performs Wednesday in Langley and Friday in Everett on its monthlong Pacific Northwest tour. Seen here at a show on Guemes Island. (Submitted photo)
Circus coming to Whidbey, then Everett, on a 30-foot crane

Theatrics include the world’s largest wedgie, a flying piano, human ceiling fan and a hair hang act.

Photo by Kira Erickson
In the trees: Couple takes Whidbey Island vacation rental to new heights

Max Lindsay-Thorsen and Tatiana Rocha always knew they wanted to build treehouses.

Photo by Kira Erickson
Whidbey Island Fair returns

Visitors gather to take their turns on carnival rides and watch beloved 4-H animals compete.

Adrienne Lyle (Photo provided)
Whidbey Islander will compete in Tokyo Olympics

Adrienne Lyle and her horse, Salvino, set two American records in their Olympic qualifying events.

Kids decorate cookies at the 2019 Whidbey Island Fair. (Photo provided)
Cookie decorating returning to Whidbey fair

More than 500 people stopped by for a creative and delicious treat at the 2019 fair.

Whidbey Island Fair makes return after year off

A beloved tradition that took a hiatus in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic is back this year.

Photo by Kira Erickson
Gary Gabelein, this year's grand marshal of the Whidbey Island Fair parade, with his donkey, Cleopatra.
Longtime fair volunteer, community member chosen as this year’s grand marshal

Gary Gabelein has a long history of involvement with the Whidbey Island Fair.

Queen Patsy Arthur and her court in the 1956 Fair Parade.
Decades of fair memories saved by South Whidbey Historical Society

Thousands of pages digitized and free to view online

Becca Heavrin paints in her studio. (Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times)
New resident sets up her art studio in Greenbank

F or Becca Heavrin, creating art is a process of discovery.

Steve Ross
Cabaret artist to peform at WICA later this month

International cabaret artist Steve Ross will bring his talent to Whidbey Island July 21-22.

Photo by Monte Cline 
Pianist and composer Walt Wagner is making a return to WICA. This time, he will be bringing members of his jazz trio to perform.
Walt Wagner Trio performing at WICA July 17

Tickets are selling fast for a performer who has a special connection with Whidbey Island.