The Giant River Otters (30 Aug 2016)

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

During the Macro photography workshop based in the ARCC (Amazon research and conservation centre) in lake Soledad, we were lucky enough for the opportunity to photograph giant river otters. This family of 7 Giant River Otters, (Pteronura brasiliensis) have a nest residing along the edge of the lake and we set out to try and get some sightings of them. Although their population is endangered, Lake Solidad and it’s inhabitants are well protected. Clarification is not needed, proven by the obvious abundance of untouched fauna and flora we encountered. At 6am on the first morning, we skipped breakfast and headed down to the dock with cameras and tripods in tow. Our transport on the lake was a catamaran made out of two canoes and a makeshift wooden deck on top that looked suspiciously unstable. Coordinator Mark and I sat on either side and paddled slowly out on the water whilst our guest Marc observed the wildlife around the edge of the lake.

The sun started to permeate the mist on the surface of the murky water. Travelling slowly, Marc managed to capture some of the local birds perching on the edge of the lake. Noisy Hoatzins were discussing our strange appearance. Sleek Anhingas diving for their breakfast, the only remnant of their presence shown by a modest collection of ripples on the surface. We rowed slowly taking in the beauty of the lake as well as eagerly listening for any otters. An hour in, we were not surprised to see no sign of anything remotely mammalian in the quiet morning light. The Giant River otters are a very popular tourist site and despite their length of up to around 2 metres long and their fiercely protective nature, it is normal for people to stay for weeks or months and not see a single sighting.

Choosing to indulge us this morning, over an hour of nervous paddling and anticipation, a sight in the distance. About 100ft In front of us, we could just about make them out. Unsure at first, we could vaguely make out some splashing that looked like it was coming from something big. Marc in front used his 600mm canon telephoto lens to use as a makeshift binocular.  He confirmed it was really them a few seconds later, and unbeknownst to me, these social mammals like to play and swim with each other throughout the day. Still a way off, we cautiously paddled towards them. River otters are territorial of their family and we did not want to surprise them or cause them alarm, merely observe. Closing in on around 30ft to the group of 3, we stopped and kept the boat where it currently sat on the water. I admit that I did not know a lot about the otters so when they became aware of us and started talking to each other in a series of clicks and high pitched grunts and squeals, I became nervous. They sounded pretty alarmed at us so rudely interrupting their morning paddle, and approached swiftly to investigate. Confident and inquisitive they showed no sign of slowing down as they swam within 10ft of us. Marc scrambled to get some photographs in the front whilst Coordinator Mark and I tried to contain our excitement.  Glimpses of huge long necks, sleek smooth fur and powerful claws were accompanied by clicking and peculiar noises as they tried to figure out what were we. They effortlessly parted around the boat, both parties trying to get side shots of us each other. The noises pretty loud and impossible to determine alarm or simple curiosity. Holding my breath, we got a last few glances of them before they disappeared off into the distance.

Over the course of our weekly stay, we saw the river otters at various points. A male otter basking on a log, swimming off when we disturbed his nap. All equipment aside, we managed to witness a giant river otter attacking a juvenile black caiman, (Caiman niger) the biggest species of caiman found in the Amazon. We never managed to see them for a long period of time, they were always diving under the water or watching us warily from a distance. Photographs do not quite show how powerful and remarkable these apex predators really are, and if you are lucky enough to see them, you are guaranteed plenty of stories.

About the Giant River Otter:

The giant Otter or Giant River Otter (Pteronura brasilienisis) is a South American Carnivorous mammal. This species of mammal is recorded as one of the most endangered mammals of the neotropics. It is longest member of the Mustelidae family, or weasel family, a global successful group of predators, reaching up to about 5.6ft in length. The Giant River Otter is a diurnal, It is the noisiest Otter species and distinct vocalisations have been documented that indicate alarm. The giant Otter is a social species, with family groups typically supporting three to eight members. Generally peaceful, the Otters are territorial and aggression has been observed between groups.

The Giant River Otter shows a variety of adaptations suitable to an amphibious lifestyle, including very dense fur, a wing like tail and webbed feet. This species prefers fresh water rivers and streams, which are usually seasonally flooded, and may also take to fresh water lakes and springs. It constructs extensive campsites close to feeding areas, clearing large amounts of vegetation. This otter subsists almost exclusively on a diet of fish, particularly characins and catfish, but may also eat crabs, turtles, snakes and caiman. It has no serious natural predator other than humans, although they do compete with other species that will inhabit the area such as neotropical otters and caiman especially the black caiman (Caiman niger) that get to a very large size.

by Marcus Marissink

Photo by Marcus Marissink
Giant River Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis)