A river otter carries seaweed back to its nest Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, in San Francisco. For the first time in decades, a river otter has made San Francisco its home, taking up residence in the ruins of the Sutro baths, a 19th century seaside public pool facing the Pacific Ocean.

Ben Margot, Associated Press

River otter's return delights San Francisco

  • Article by: JASON DEAREN
  • Associated Press
  • January 5, 2013 - 4:01 PM

SAN FRANCISCO - A rapt crowd followed a trail of bubbles that zipped over the surface of a seaside pond in the ruins of a 19th-century bath in San Francisco. The city's newest star -- the first river otter seen in the city in decades -- surfaced furtively with a mouth full of sea grass. Then it ducked back under, taking the sea grass underneath a remnant of the historic baths where it was building a nest.

Beyond delighting tourists, the otter has mystified conservationists, who are piecing together clues to figure out how he got there. River otters once thrived in the area, but development, hunting and environmental pollution in the 19th and 20th centuries have taken a toll.

The critters are a living barometer of water quality -- if it's bad, they cannot thrive. But new populations being seen north and east of San Francisco are giving hope to conservationists that years of environmental regulations and new technologies are making a difference.

"The fact that this otter is in San Francisco and doing so well in other regions of the Bay Area, it's a good message that there's hope for the watershed," said Megan Isadore, director of outreach and education for the River Otter Ecology Project, a group that studies otter populations farther north and in the bay. The group said until now it had no evidence the creatures had returned to San Francisco, and the last sighting was nearly half a century ago.

The otter is nicknamed Sutro Sam after the old baths, which were named after former San Francisco Mayor Adolph Sutro, who built the building that at the time was an engineering marvel.

The facility was opened in 1896 on a cliff facing the Pacific Ocean, its baths fed by the salty ocean tides and a freshwater seep. They were torn down in 1966, and the building's carcass has long been a tourist draw.

The otter seems to have found the mix of the environment he needs to make a home. "They do need freshwater to drink and keep their fur clean," Isadore said. "They are also happy in salt and brackish water -- wherever there is food."

Young males often are the ones that travel away from groups, looking for food. If they find a hospitable habitat, others may join and create the basis of a new colony, said Dorren Gurrola, a science teacher at the Marine Mammal Center, which studies Sam's relatives, the sea otter. "Habitat destruction had an impact on the river otters," Gurrola said. "So it's always exciting to see these animals return to their habitat."

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