Text & Photos by Gloria Seow, Education Committee Vice Chairperson
We observed the adorable antics of the Bishan Otters from a respectable distance of three to 10 metres for two solid hours.
Were the otters going to show? That was the question that weighed worriedly on my mind on the morning of 24 September 2017. Not only did we have a group of 20 participants all raring to see the famous Bishan Otters, The Straits Times (ST) journalist Jose Hong and ST photographer Jonathan Choo were also going to cover the event.
Thanks to otter enthusiast Bernard Seah, they did. In fact, we were in the excellent accompany of these Smooth-coated Otters (Lutrogale perspicillata) for all two hours of our walk. The day before, Bernard had tracked them down on his e-scooter in the Marina Bay area, trailing them to their night roost. The next morning at 6.30 am, he was back at the roost but alas, the otters had somehow vamoosed. Luckily, a security guard had seen the 11 targets moving off. Panicky Bernard was most relieved to locate them again at 7.10 am, swimming towards Marina South Pier.
Sadly, parts of Singapore’s coastal waters are blighted by plastic litter that could harm marine life.
With Bernard’s update, I WhatsApp-ed the group to rendezvous at Marina South Pier at 7.30 am. Bingo! The otters had just finished their coastal swim and were clambering on land, spot on at Marina South Pier when we arrived. We all had our personal mobility devices to keep up with the otters, most on bike shares, a few on e-scooters and one girl even came in skates. Before long, the frisky otters were on the move again. They crossed the road and trotted the grassy distance towards Marina Bay Cruise Centre. Bernard led one half of the group to follow them while I stayed behind for the late comers. By the time the late half caught up, the otters had plunged back into the sea for some breakfast. We were thrilled to observe them chomping on fish, much like how we eat our burgers, using opposable ‘thumbs’ on their front paws and sharp claws to grasp their still-wriggling catch.
As unpredictable as otters go, they then scrambled up the breakwater en masse and rolled on the grass to dry off. Even though these otters are used to humans, they maintained their wariness. When some over-enthusiastic photographers happened to block their randomly-chosen path, the lead otters approached in a crouched crawl, making warning noises for us humans to back off. As far as possible, we observed them from a respectable distance of three to 10 metres without setting off any otterly alarm.
Then the otters reversed direction for a long swim back to Marina Barrage, efficiently hugging the coastline the entire way. As air-breathing mammals, theirs was an undulating swim similar to dolphins, using their muscular tails and supple bodies to move underwater and up for gulps of air. Along the way, some hauled themselves up on land for a quick poop, which left behind dirty green spraints. Halfway through, all 11 otters took a break with a group rub on the sandy ground. Here, Bernard pointed out the heavily-pregnant matriarch that was expected to ‘pop’ anytime. The mama otter typically locates a holt (usually dug out of earth) to have her litter and nurse them until they are strong enough to emerge. Participants learnt that babies are not natural swimmers. They have to acquire the skill soon enough as sadly, drownings are common. (PS: The Bishan mama had seven babies on 5 October but only six made it past the first week since appearing in public on 26 November. The earlier three documented batches of babies also had similar statistics, with one otter succumbing each time.)
A Smooth-coated Otter eating a live Midas Cichlid.
As the otters resumed their swim, we tracked them on land with our bicycles and e-scooters. They passed fishermen with lines and hooks that could easily snag them. We were there to greet them as they emerged dripping wet at Marina Barrage. The cuties then strolled through the grounds, attracting lots of attention. Then it was time for second breakfast in the calm waters of Marina Reservoir. One of them caught a bright orange fish which Bernard identified as the gold morph of the introduced Midas Cichlid (Amphilophus citrinellus). We witnessed a young one begging his fish-chomping elder for scraps with pitiful yelps and circling to no avail. Others were content splashing about. Even as they spread themselves out to hunt and play, these otters remained in constant contact with their high-pitched yips and yelps. We left them there, thoroughly charmed by their adorable antics and hope that they will continue to thrive in Singapore.
The walk was covered by The Straits Times with Facebook posts, online and print articles, as well as a video. Read the main article here: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/watching-learning-about-bishan-otters