On a recent sunny Saturday, I slipped my blue kayak into the Lagoon at the Lagoon Road boat landing in Oak Bluffs. Coasting on white-caps and a robust tailwind, I headed north toward the drawbridge. The tide was near its peak, and I was able to paddle, the bottom of the kayak barely scraping sand, through a cut in the beach, up a narrow, winding channel, and into Brush Cove, the pond between the hospital and County Road.
Brush Cove is nothing to write home about. Its water, enriched by effluent from pondside septics and presumably tainted by runoff from nearby roads, is fine for paddling but not something I’d want to swim in. And the shoreline basically consists of people’s back yards; parts of it are infested by invasive phragmites reeds. The bottom is mostly bare, though a few soft-shell clam shells suggest that the sediment contains some life. Late in the summer, sodden mats of algae sometimes mar the surface.
But for all its ailments, the cove rarely fails to offer something of interest when a spring tide lets me paddle there. Despite its location near homes, the hospital, and important roads, the cove feels surprisingly remote, and the shallowness of its channel entrance means its waters are not often visited by boaters. Sometimes green herons or black-crowned night-herons pose on the marsh, bills cocked to stab at fish. Kingfishers and spotted sandpipers both turn up regularly here during fall migration. Baitfish can be numerous, and I’ve seen snapper bluefish taking ruthless advantage of the combination of dense prey and no larger competitors.
So on this particular day, I wasn’t too surprised when a sleek brown head popped above the surface about 30 feet from my boat. Upright in the water, an otter studied me, black eyes sparking in the sun and small, neat ears cupped forward. Puffing like a little steam engine, in his element and probably already familiar with the essential clumsiness of humans, the otter was clearly more curious than afraid, and possibly more annoyed than curious. I responded as I often do when wildlife approaches me — whistled a snippet of Gilbert and Sullivan — at which the otter stiffened with momentary alarm. But he didn’t leave.
After a minute or so, the otter slipped vertically back under the water, leaving barely a ripple. Having encountered otters before, sure of what would happen next, I simply waited, my kayak drifting slowly in the wind. Predictably, the otter popped up again a few moments later, puffing and snorting, to study me from a different angle. The animal repeated the process until it had circled me fully, examining me from every side, each time the same short distance from the boat. Though I tried to follow its course under water, I couldn’t: even in water only two or three feet deep, the dark animal simply disappeared against the dark sediment of the cove’s bottom, and no wake or trail of bubbles marked its movement.
After about five minutes, the otter evidently concluded that I was neither edible nor a threat, and therefore wasn’t worth wasting any more time on. Its final dive was languid, graceful, arching, like the sounding of a whale: the shoulders, the supple back, and the robust tail took turns breaking the surface, and then animal was gone.
I drifted and watched for several more minutes, figuring that the otter would have to come up for air or climb onto the shore eventually. But it’s typical of wild carnivores that when they feel the time has come to disappear, they do so instantly, completely — like magic. I never saw it again and have no idea where it went. Perhaps it managed to slip unseen out of the water and into a thicket. Perhaps it has a burrow in the edge of the marsh.
While some Islanders and many visitors have never seen one here, otters are surprisingly numerous and widespread on the Vineyard. They are also highly mobile by both land and water. Though I doubt they breed in the densely settled parts of Oak Bluffs, they may well turn up here regularly as visitors. While sometimes brash, like the one in Brush Cove, otters are more often secretive, and they are largely nocturnal; you’re most likely to detect them by their footprints in mud, their distinctive trails in a good “tracking snow” in winter, or their “latrines” — concentrations of fish-scale-filled droppings that serve as territorial markers.
In any case, by the time you actually see an otter, you can be sure it has already studied you. Though sometimes almost comical in their curiosity about humans, these are profoundly wild animals, possessed of sharp senses and resourceful instincts for survival. Every otter I see reminds me that the Wild Side is everywhere on Martha’s Vineyard.