On the hunt for otters

'Something strange is going on'

NEIL RATLEY
Last updated 05:00 15/11/2013
Otter hunter
NICOLE GOURLEY/ Fairfax NZ

ON THE LOOKOUT: Natural history specialist and author Lloyd Esler hunts for otters on the banks of the Waihopai River where there has been an unconfirmed sighting.

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NEW ZEALAND OTTERS: Several Southlanders claim to have spotted otters.
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"It was about 12 inches long and needed a shave."

That is how Betty Hawkes described the cream-coloured whiskery animal that swam up and put its front feet on the bank when she was fishing under the old Clifden Bridge in 1956.

Did Ms Hawkes spot an otter?

Invercargill-based natural history specialist and author Lloyd Esler said Ms Hawkes is not the only one who believed she encountered an otter in Southland.

And he is calling for more otter sightings ahead of publishing his book Whaling and Sealing in Southern New Zealand.

No otters have ever been captured or photographed in New Zealand, he said.

No bones or footprints have been recorded.

Mr Esler said as a scientist he was sceptical a creature could exist without any physical evidence but admitted "there was something strange going on".

"I have spoken with 11 people who are either adamant they have seen an otter or are puzzled by an otter-like animal," he said.

The witnesses accounts stretched from 1929 to 2011 and 10 of the 11 sightings were concentrated within 30 kilometres of Otautau, Mr Esler said.

Without proof in the form of photographs, footprints, fur and bones it would be easy to dismiss a one-off sighting as a ferret, seal, cat, rat or possum - but the number of sightings and their concentration in one area suggested a mystery animal existed in Western Southland, he said.

In March 2011, Tuatapere man John Templeton saw an unknown creature scurrying away from him as he was catching freshwater lobsters in Grove Burn.

He described his sighting to Mr Esler.

"I heard the sound of a small animal running and caught a glimpse of a darkish mammal larger than a rat which ran into a hole in the bank just above the water level."

Mr Esler said he visited the spot and found the hole with Mr Templeton but there were no signs of footprints.

The otter sightings could either mean two things, Mr Esler said.

New Zealand had a native otter which was very unlikely, or otters were introduced.

"The introduction of otters, either as escapees in the early days of travelling fairs, or as deliberate attempts at establishing a population, is not impossible," he said.

A chapter in Whaling and Sealing in Southern New Zealand would be dedicated to otters and Mr Esler said he was encouraging anyone who may have spotted one to contact him if they thought they may have seen one.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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