I didn’t find them: they found me. Driving across the Somerset levels, two black silhouettes crossed the road a dozen yards in front of me, a humped scurry like two small hump-backed bridges on legs that moved with power and purpose. The landscape here is scarred by water, open wounds criss-cross the landscape which seems forever as though it could at any moment hold its breath and sink slowly beneath the surface like a child at bath-time. I drove on and parked and emerged to grab my camera with that trip-hammer of adrenaline that comes with an unexpected encounter with something so carefree and joyous. Alongside the road is a ‘rhyne’, a watery ditch on steroids, perhaps three feet across, bounded by earthen banks and mixed vegetation, holding knuckles and wakes in the water as the two otters I had seen swam slowly towards me.
I hid, lying on one of the concrete bridges that let tractors into the sodden fields, and watched them. They knew I was there, nonetheless, but it did not deter them. They were scouring the banks for eels, and the irony that one species just returning form the brink of extinction was killing another now heading towards it made me want somehow to intervene. But it would do no good. Otters are masters of the waters, the vibrissae whiskers on either side of their clenched-fist muzzle speaking to them of movements that they cannot see in the muddy water. Those adapted teeth, with weak canines but powerful, bone-crunching molars, perfects for breaking through fish and crayfish and eels (which is why you always see an otter eat with its head canted to one side) ready to pounce. Pounce one did, and I never saw the victim. It was small, though, perhaps a snail or a frog – otters are omnivores when hungry. The pair tag-teamed their way along and I raced ahead, until they slipped around a corner and into one of the drains, those arrow-strait canals that collect the water before handing it onto the rivers to start its thousand year journey back to the levels again. On the banks, human fisherman patrolled in vain. Freed from the bounds of the rhyne, the otters dived, joyous and free, and surfaced into scudding wavelets driven by a cold Northerly, never to be seen again