You can always spot an otter . . .

February 6th, 2009 | Written by Simon Rice|

There could hardly seem a less promising place to go naturalising than the stretch of the Noguera Pallaresa just downstream from Tremp, ‘capital’ of the Pallars Jussà comarca in the Catalan pre-Pyrenees. The river here passes through a wide flood plain and is flanked with large banks of shaley gravel; in fact the numerous irrigated fields that take advantage of the level ground are interspersed with several gravel pits. The river itself is contained within large levees that run in a dead straight line for several miles. But in its wisdom the Ajuntament, or town hall, has developed the west bank with leisure facilities and a nature trail; as well as equipment for circuit training of the sit-up, press-up variety (which I studiously ignore!) and the track itself has been prepared for walkers and runners, complete with kilometre posts and some very welcome benches, with notices pointing out the flora and fauna – plus strict instructions about not damaging them!

The river itself has a life of its own, however, as in recent years the water authorities have guaranteed a constant flow of running water, rather than siphoning the whole lot off upstream for irrigation as happened in the past, and this has led to the development of lots of habitat between the drearily imposing levees. Islets have formed amid the reed beds and there are stretches of rapids where the course narrows between them. In other places these islets have grown large enough to support trees and there are torpid backwaters oozing with waterweed. These islets are a small miracle as they have to be stable enough to face some serious flooding when the massive San Antoni reservoir just upstream has to ‘let go’. But on closer examination there was something even more interesting!

The facility is surprisingly popular and we find ourselves using it a lot, especially recently during that no-man’s-land time between going to the builders’ merchant before it is inundated with chaps in little white vans, and five-thirty when the proper shops open. This was the first time in weeks that this lowest part of the Conca de Tremp wasn’t still swathed in freezing fog even at that time, and there were plenty of people taking the opportunity for a paseo. That, coupled with the fact that we were, as always, accompanied by our two lupine husky dogs would preclude any great interest in the wildlife but there it was; an beautiful otter in a fishing frenzy just about ten metres away!

It must have been a combination of the noisily rushing water, the animal’s obsession with the task in hand and the fact that we were downwind, but we were able to watch it for well over five minutes (the camera timed this, a handy tool!), moving around to get better camera angles, even flagging down a jogger to look (he stayed in iPodland, however, so maybe this was a more common sight than we’d imagined!) and generally doing the kinds of thing David Attenborough would shudder at! Otter caught at least five fish during this time, appearing to steady itself against a boulder whilst lining up the fish, each about 4-6 oz I would guess, to be swallowed in one gulp.

The last time, almost the only time in fact, I’d seen an otter was in Jerez Zoo, of all places, in the company of the denizens of the Iberianaure Forum which held a ‘summit’ nearby in April last year. As the ‘experts’ carried on their tour of the rare and exotic species I remained at the otter enclosure, struck by its repetitive behaviour, swimming up and down, up and down, in a manner that reminded me of inmates in an institution. But as time went on I realized that the otter was playing a game, swimming upside down at times and turning against the banks of its little pool in numerous different ways, making a seemingly endless variation. Was it romantic of me, or worse still anthropomorphic, to be reminded of Ken Kesey, Henri Charrière or even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn! In fact ‘our’ otter did very much the same, swimming dexterously between the boulders using numerous different twists and turns. With its head under the water searching for prey its powerful shoulders made a striking bow wave that reminded me, unpleasantly, of that of a nuclear submarine, whose ‘bows’ are underwater several yards ahead of the visible portion.

Leaving those unpleasant reflections we walked back into town as the dusk settled, glad to be back in the human world of street lighting, the babble, not of flowing water but flowing conversation, and more fish, this time neatly arrayed on the peixeteria’s white marble slab!

Postscript: despite the problems I subsequetly had with the camera, it’s obvious that having it to hand generated some memorable, if completely amateur, images. However I feel the more important aspect of our brief encounter was in its unexpected, spontaneous nature. I developed this theme elsewhere last year in the Iberianature Forum following a similarly sighting of a fox. Unencumbered with gadgets our little party, incuding a professional ‘media’ person, were simply spellbound by the close proximity of a wild animal in its own domain. This time the impression was heightened, perhaps, due to the unprepossessing location and inauspicious circumstances!