Photo by Heide Island.

Photo by Heide Island.

Professor to discuss study of island’s elusive river otters

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

After plans for another site to perform her sabbatical research fell through, a visit to Coupeville turned the tide for comparative behaviorist Heide Island. She found that Admirals Cove and its close proximity to Crockett Lake created an ideal location for the marine foraging animals at the center of her research. 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.

She confirmed five furry residents of Admirals Cove and three transient otters that have 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’d 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.

Photo by Heide Island.

Photo by Heide Island.

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 News

The route of the Whidbey 1/2 will take runners down West Beach Road where they will be greeted by views of the Pacific Ocean and snow-capped mountains on Sunday, April 25. (Photo by Emily Gilbert/Whidbey News-Times)
Runners to compete in Whidbey ½ next Sunday

Up to 600 runners will compete in the Whidbey ½ on Sunday, April 25, on the North End, and there are still spots available for those who want to join.

Foundation awards $60,000 in grants

Whidbey Community Foundation recently announced its next phase of funding from the… Continue reading

Charity for foster care holding auction

A nonprofit organization with a mission to meet the needs of foster… Continue reading

Brinkman
Community remembers longtime officer from South Whidbey

Mark Brinkman, 56, passed away unexpectedly Sunday night.

Four-year-old Tula Pierre-Louis and her brother, Iuri, play in the waves with mother Atty at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park. It’s the beginning of peak season for Washington’s most popular state park. (Photo by Emily Gilbert/Whidbey News-Times)
Deception Pass State Park prepping for peak season

Park manager Jason Armstrong said the number of visitors last year was about 120 percent of what it had been in previous years at the most-visited state park in Washington.

Witness, shell casing tie murder to Central Whidbey

A law enforcement report on the murder of a 67-year-old Whidbey Island man whose body was found in Blaine suggests that he may have been shot near the Coupeville Ferry.

Photo by Emily Gilbert/Whidbey News-Times
The Coupeville-Port Townsend route will stay on a one-boat schedule longer than initially planned because too many ferry workers are away from work after they contracted or were exposed to COVID-19. Reservations on the second boat through June 6 were canceled.
Coupeville ferry short crew; some reservations canceled

The ferry system should have a better idea in the next few weeks if the second boat will be delayed beyond June 6.

Hospital to sell Bayview property with odd history

The property has dropped significantly in value since its purchase 13 years ago.

Oak Harbor man charged for brandishing pellet gun

The 21-year-old man is facing a felony charge.

Most Read