River Otter vs Sea Otter: You Otter Know

River otter.
River otter. Yes, it’s pooping.

Apparently river otters never got the memo about staying in the rivers.

I’m a compulsive explainer. Wait, let me explain: I have worked as an interpretive naturalist for a very long time, and I really love what I do. So when I’m out for a walk, just minding my own business enjoying the fall colours, and something fantastic happens, I tend to kick into explainer mode.

This morning, for example. We were treated to a family of six river otters in the bay just off Second Beach in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. They had just had a very successful fishing trip and were busily devouring a bunch of little flounders or sand dabs. River otters are very messy eaters—but they really appear to love eating. You know, they really appear to love everything they do. The Onion once ran a wonderful headline: “Black lab has best day of his life for 862nd day in a row.” You could easily apply that to river otters. Man, they know how to have fun.

Eventually, four of them swam off down the shore, and a few minutes later, Tom and I saw a bunch of people gathered at the edge of the sea wall, clearly interested in something.

There they were: our four young otters were at a drainage culvert, which they had discovered could be used to provide safe passage under the seawall, upward, under the road and into the forest. Otters are really, really smart. Have I mentioned how much I love otters?

Anyway. I got out my camera and started getting some video. The last little guy of the group was having a heck of a time getting into the culvert and was starting to get pretty stressed about being left behind by his siblings. As I filmed, I listened to the people’s reactions: “Oh look! A sea otter! He’s trying to climb up the pipe!”

It was then that the explainer in me wanted to jump in and say, actually, no. These are river otters. But instead, I held back and listened to the conversation, thinking back to ten years ago or so when I first saw river otters in the ocean. I, too, assumed that sea + otter = sea  otter. It’s a pretty logical assumption, isn’t it? But river otters never got the memo about being river otters. They go wherever the fish are: ponds, lakes, rivers, lagoons, and right into the ocean whenever they want.

Sea otter.
That’s a sea otter, yo. The late great Nyac, a survivor of the Exxon Valdez.

Sea otters are not nearly so versatile. They are 95% aquatic and spend pretty much their entire lives in kelp beds just off the sea shore a kilometre or two. In this part of the world, sea otters are found on the west side of Vancouver Island, never here in the Strait of Georgia. At least, not yet; they are slowly recovering from being nearly completely wiped out by the marine fur trade in the early colonial period, and if all goes well for them (and it isn’t going all that great at the moment, apparently) we may see them back here in a few years.

So here’s the deal:

River otters: Dark brown. Sleek fur and skinny profile. Long, serpentine tail. Almost always swim in a dog paddle, almost never swim on their backs. Run easily on land.

Sea otters: Dark brown with a much lighter head. Fluffy fur and husky profile. Big, black, triangular “teddy bear” nose. Short tail. Very often swim on their backs. Almost never found on land.

Both kinds of otters: A furry bundle of awesome.

Here’s the little guy at the culvert, just after his three siblings have disappeared into it:




  1. Don,

    Your writing style is engaging and entertaining. I really enjoyed this. The video is excellent, too.

    – Rae (née Réjeanne Sopczak)

    • Well hello Réjeanne! I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. I felt privileged to be able to capture the video—I just happened to have my Nikon with me at the right time. For a change.

  2. Thanks Don – great blog. It reminds me a bit of when a friend asked me (when we were living in Edmonton) why there were "seagulls" in the prairies. I tried to explain that they were just gulls, and that the term "seagull" was invented to apply to those gull species that frequented the sea … you see?

  3. Don Enright

    Gerry Lunn Exactly except those that frequent bays… you know what those are called.

  4. Don Enright ?

  5. Don Enright


  6. Don Enright ?Oh … Bagels … got it. 🙂

  7. Lorene Kimura

    Don't know if you know or not but Calgary has had a pair born. They figure mom will allow them to see people in May http://calgary.ctvnews.ca/calgary-zoo-celebrates-birth-of-otter-pups-1.1759310

  8. The Stanley Park Ecology Society is running a great evening program on otters and beavers this Sunday. http://stanleyparkecology.ca/ai1ec_event/water-loving-otters-beavers-2/?instance_id=632

  9. Cathy Genge

    Yay! Great vid and article. We have river otters in front of our place and they are such fun to watch, but why do they have to poop on land? Preferably on one's lawn furniture or open garage?

  10. Mariee Devereux

    Nice write up Don! I'll be integrating your little tid bits into the Beavers and Otters walk I'm doing this Sunday in Stanley Park. The video is awesome! So glad you shared your otter escapade!

  11. I was just at dogbeach at Vanier Park and 5 “river otters” swam by, stopped to watch the idiot labradors, inluding mine, chasing balls. They hung around for about 5 minutes and then swam off.

  12. Janet Cunningham

    Today I saw two large river otters make their way past my house down the rock stairs, across the lawn and disappear into the raging creek at the bottom of our property. They travelled the 125 feet from the back of our property in no time at all and in the 35 years I have lived here in west Vancouver I have never seen them in the creek or on the land. Amazing as we are over a mile from the ocean.

  13. Makenna Kochendorfer


  14. Thank you for solving this mystery. We have been seeing them (or one of them, can’t be sure) on the shore of Seneca Lake, of the Finger Lakes, New York. We wonder how he or they survive, what they live on, etc. Everyone who sees them on the lakeshore thinks they are irresistible.

  15. Tonia Winchester

    Awesome article, thanks! Love your writing style. Are both types of otters in the same family? Don’t worry about responding. I will google it ;). I was rooting so hard for that little guy. So glad he made it in there. Thanks again!

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