Otters Everywhere: Countywide Art and Science Project Begins

River Otters. Photo: Alan Peterson.
River Otters. Photo: Alan Peterson.

“It’s a celebration of life,” says Humboldt State University wildlife professor Jeff Black of his new project—North Coast Otters, a  public arts initiative. In summer of 2020, there will be 100 painted otter statues released throughout Humboldt and Del Norte Counties and surrounding gateway communities.

Since 1999, HSU students have been collecting records of river otter sightings in Humboldt and adjacent counties from citizen science submissions. The findings? There is a healthy population of river otters in our North Coast watersheds and coastlines. This suggests that we still have what it takes for these top predators and these bioindicators (or  ‘canaries in the coal mine’) to thrive. At least for now, and hopefully forever more, if we continue to value our habitats where otters live and play!

Wanting to take the almost 20-year-old research project further, Black was inspired on a recent trip to England to start the North Coast Otters project. While visiting Dartmoor National Park, Black stumbled upon the Moor Otter project, which placed painted otters in galleries, pubs, inns, garden centers, and other businesses around the area. The Moor Otter project inspired Black to create a similar educational outreach that will attempt to merge citizen art and citizen science.

An example of a painted otter, courtesy of North Coast Otters.
An example of a painted otter, courtesy of North Coast Otters.

Enter North Coast Otters, a public arts initiative due to take place from June through October, summer 2020. While the project is running, 100 three-foot tall otters, painted by local artists, will be on display throughout Humboldt and Del Norte Counties and adjacent towns. The river otter statues will be auctioned at the end of the summer, with proceeds going to create student internships and partnerships in community watershed projects.

River otter statues will be available for viewing in restaurants, museums, visitor centers and other public venues. Along with the otter statues, an educational program will be released, including a schools program set to take place in the spring of 2020.  Additionally, “for the young and young at heart,” said Black, a fun program will guide participants through educational activities to become a Jr. Otter Ranger Scientist.

Overall, the project aims to increase awareness of our local watersheds, and to inspire wildlife stewardship. Humboldt County has a healthy otter population, but otters in many communities have declined due to less concern for maintaining clean water and healthy habitats. Through the North Coast Otters project, community members will be able to learn about otters, search for statues, experience new art, and celebrate life on the North Coast.

North Coast Otters is currently seeking sponsors for the project’s initial activities. Several “Humboldt Patrons” have committed initial funding to help launch the project, but more funding is needed. Future steps will include a public call for artists’ design concepts and a search for host locations for the completed sculptures. Each of these efforts will enhance the visibility of the project and its supporters. Please be in touch to discuss options for sponsoring the project by contacting [email protected] You can also visit the project’s webpage at www.otterart.humboldt.edu for more information and a link to donate to the project.

And if you see a wild otter, please let us know on our website’s sighting submissions page (below) or send us an email [email protected] We are keeping track of the comings and goings of otter social groups on a weekly basis throughout the year! Please join in the fun to help describe how our otters are doing. The basic information we ask for is the date, time, number of otters, relative size of pups, and a location with google map coordinates.

To report sightings and observations of wild otters, record the date, time, and map location and send an email to [email protected], call 707-826-3439, or visit: www2.humboldt.edu/wildlife/faculty/black/research/ottersentry.html.