Homecoming in Cocha Cashu

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This is Theo (or Thea?), a young otter born last year in Cocha Cashu. The giant otter habit of periscoping allows us to document their unique throat patterns.

The howler monkeys wake me up before my alarm clock does. For a moment, I’m disorientated. Oh, right, I’m in Cocha Cashu in Peru. As I dress, I try to decide how I would describe the howlers’ epic serenade to my kids. Like a train roaring through a tunnel? A powerful wind rushing through the tree canopy? Awesome in the true sense of the word?

The day is just beginning when I meet Russ at the lake. We collect our gear and gingerly step into the wooden canoe. It sits low in the water. Any sudden movement risks an early bath. The trick is to smoothly fold yourself into a cross-legged position on the bottom. We eventually manage this (not so smoothly), and gently push ourselves off. The canoe, shaped like a hollowed-out needle, slides soundlessly from the shore. Sitting in the stern, I grip my crudely carved paddle and push against the water, accidentally knocking against the boat and causing Russ to clutch the sides. But soon I fall into a rhythm, five strokes to starboard, five to port, and the canoe stabilizes. We relax. The paling sky, the murmur of our passage, the darkly sleeping forest, it all seems so familiar. It is as though I’ve never been away.

A juvenile striated heron pretends to be invisible as we approach.

Almost immediately, we glide past a tree in which white-fronted capuchins are feeding. There is still not enough light for photography, so I take pleasure in simply watching. Russ does not speak, for which I am grateful. The beauty around us is enough. We slowly drift on. Howlers on one shore of the lake begin their unearthly concert, and a group on the opposite shore answers. The forest is quickening. Far off, I hear the soulful hiccupping of crying babies; correction, dusky titi monkeys. A hoatzin shuffles in overhanging branches, rasping softly. Sunlight now gilds the trees, and their leaves turn a luminous green. A striated heron stands frozen at the edge of a patch of floating grass. I touch the water with my paddle, and the canoe whispers forward. Russ and I take photos of the heron until, losing heart, it flies off.

Then I hear them. I hold my breath. Yes, there it is again. Unmistakable. Now I’m tense with anticipation. I know what to look for and scan the water’s surface ahead. It reflects the tree line perfectly, such is its stillness. But at the grass edge to the left I see it distort and shimmer. Then I hear a sharp exhalation, and a wave bulges toward us. They’re chasing fish. Russ and I see the small head simultaneously. Two. No, three giant otters! I reach for my camera and wait. Sure enough, they soon spot us and head directly toward us. As they come closer, they begin to zigzag, studying us from all angles. One exhales explosively and ducks under. Another propels its upper quarters straight out of the water—periscopes—and I quickly take a photo of its throat pattern. To my delight, I recognize this male. I knew him as a demanding cub in 2002, in nearby Cocha Salvador, Manu National Park’s best-known oxbow lake. I named him Diablito—Little Devil. Now, a decade later, we meet again.

The third otter also snorts loudly and periscopes. This individual was born in Cocha Cashu in 2009 and is Diablito’s daughter or son. Soon I have the throat patterns of all three. Gently, quietly, I paddle backward, letting the otters know that we mean no harm. The important business of hunting soon distracts them, and they continue foraging along the grassy shore.
I take a deep breath. I love seeing giant otters, the subject of seven years of conservation work, but actually recognizing an individual from my former life is thrilling. And I’m happy that the lake still harbors a resident giant otter group as it has done for as long as research has been carried out at the Cocha Cashu Biological Station.

As we make our way back to the station, a pair of macaws flies overhead and a cormorant croaks rudely. My paddle dips into a large clump of fat, squirming tadpoles. They fan out, bobbling the water surface. The lake is humming with life, including biting beasties. I’ve been so caught up with the otters that only now do I feel the burning itch of several bites on my arms and neck. But it’s not worth stopping for repellent—our breakfast is calling us.
The canoe nudges the station’s jetty, and Russ pulls us along it. He climbs out, stretches, and turns to face me. “That was wonderful. Thank you,” he says. Pleased, I beam at him. As he walks off for his coffee, I take a last, long look across the lake and sigh contentedly. I’ve come home.

Jessica Groenendijk is an education and outreach coordinator at San Diego Zoo Global’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru.