The Cape clawless is one of the thirteen sub-species found around the world. The largest by far is the giant otter of the Amazon.
The taxonomic name of our residents is quite pleasant: Aonyx capensis. The “clawless”, obviously, is because it doesn’t have claws, like a cousin found in the Congo. It has small fingernails. Its grip, strong enough to hold the slipperiest fish, is provided by a large pad in the middle or palm of each foot and thick pads under each finger, all of them rough. The fingers are partly webbed and the heavy tail provides the main driving power. The colour is light or dark brown with some grey-white underneath. When wet the otter glistens like a polished car.
Adults usually weigh around 10 kg. Skinner’s and Smithers’ “The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion”, the bible for naturalists, records males just short of two metres and nearly 16 kg. Guessing that their strength is probably about twice that of a man, ounce for ounce, that’s a lot of power they can call on to swim for long periods and at high speed on the hunt.
One of our first sightings of otters was most unusual. One bright sunny morning Fundi Doreen called me to the picture windows overlooking the bay.
Below us, not thirty metres away, a family of otters was crossing the rocky “beach” in single file – not the usual family of five or six recorded by the scientists, but eleven.
They ambled across without haste led by two very large otters (we assumed mom and dad), then several medium-sized juveniles or teenagers and bringing up the rear four babies which struggled a little to get from rock to rock.
It took the leaders a few minutes to reach the giant boulders at the other end of the “beach” and the stragglers a deal longer. There they vanished amid the granite and we assume they took to the water because we did not see them again. An otter is hard to discern swimming among the kelp clusters with only its head showing.
We estimated the two leaders to be well over a metre and a half. Since then we have often seen single otters and pairs and families of up to six but nothing like that first unique viewing. They come and go erratically. We may see none for weeks then comes a moment, usually at about 1 am, we’re woken from deep sleep by a cacophony of screeches and wails from outside like battalions of feral cats at war.
The otters have arrived.
What the racket is about we do not know. We assume it is something to do with mating, or establishing who’s boss. Sometimes these calls in the night are brief and almost conversational as if they are discussing the weather. At other times their voices rise almost to screaming pitch as if they are fighting.
They appear to wander up and down the long Cape Peninsula coast, constantly seeking richer sea pastures. They foray close to the coastline through the undersea kelp forests and reefs, hunting mainly fish and crabs, sometimes bringing ashore a small octopus with its tentacles clamped grimly but vainly around the catcher’s head.
Otters 3 – To be continued/ 10 October ….