Goa is Swaying palms, white sands and sparkling waters, this is not how I describe it and is possibly a stereotype, but this is how Lonely Planet describes it and probably so do all the people who visit this beautiful state, and to prove this, I recall a conversation I had with a lady who was waiting to board the bus to Goa with me.
Me: So are you going to Goa, Lady: yes Me: For a holiday? Lady: why else would one go to Goa? Me: for work lady: yeah , ok (with an air of complete disbelief)
So yes, little does one associate with Goa except maybe to un wind and they can’t really be blamed for before I was associated with the Wild Otters project, I myself thought of Goa as the description given above. But fortunately for me, my association with the project has introduced me to the other side, the wild side, the otter side of this Western Ghats landscape. This then, is one such trip down the “otter side”–
It had been one hell of an arduous journey. The bus had already taken more than 12 hours to reach our destination. Cursing my luck, I wanted nothing more than a long snooze and hot food. On finally getting off my bus, my Wild Otters team members, Atul Borkar accompanied by Anushka Rege, announced that we were not going to the field station, but directly to the field to check the camera traps at a location known as Britona and hopefully sight some otters. With the Goa heat beating down on us, we trudged grudgingly (me) along the prickly, off beaten mangrove track also known as a ‘bund’ that is used by otters as a grooming, defecating, resting site and the sides are used to build their dens or holts.
After walking for ten minutes, we spotted something on the bund ahead of us, Atul asked us to look less imposing but being the graceless specimens we are, we still managed to scare the small animal, which we identified as a mongoose and its baby! After our excitement on seeing a baby mongoose had died down, we continued our journey towards the elusive camera trap.
As we shuffled along, our eyes scanning the water surface, we suddenly spotted something bobbing up and down in the water. It’s probably a log I thought to myself or is it? Anushka, who was walking behind me also exclaimed in an excited whisper, “What is it?” as it swam nearer it dawned upon us that the round head and practically non- existent ears belonged to an otter! Atul! we hissed loudly as our team leader walked on, oblivious to the excitement that had hit his team members. With the repeated hissing when he finally looked back, we pointed excitedly to the water, Otterrrr. “Get down both of you, he hissed back, you might scare them off.” Practically lying full length behind the bushes, we waited with bated breath for the otters to re -emerge.
Our patience paid off as we experienced the gathering of a relatively large family enjoying the cool mangrove waters, chirping, growling, diving and generally having a gala time. In the time that we were there, we sighted about 6 pups and 3 adults who “psssd pssd” (a sound emitted by an otter when feeling threatened) once they sighted us and disappeared. We realized that the show was over and we decided to check the camera traps. Finding good amount of evidence of otter occupancy (the trap was placed outside the otter den) we left the otters in peace. Flushed and excited we suddenly realized we were fairly parched, to which the local sugarcane is the answer announced Atul. After about 15 glasses (an exaggerated figure) of sugarcane juice, we were suitably satiated and headed to our Wild otters field station.
After meeting with other members and volunteers associated with team otters (Abhishek and Martha), we discussed the day’s findings and prepped to see what the next location – Sonal (the pronunciation is very different from the way it is spelt) had in store for us. So by about 12:30 p.m. we were ready, bikes et all to zip through the beautiful locales of Goa. While we neared our location the scenery and the roads changed, with it becoming greener and cooler as we rode under the canopy of trees. The scenery was made even more special when Atul pointed out to the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in the distance.
Soon after, we reached Sonal and after parking the bikes, we started walking through a plantation and towards a cool, shaded forest stream, which is said to be an ideal habitat for the elusive and nocturnal Small- Clawed otter. The team had placed a camera trap next to the defecating site of the Otter. An interesting aspect of the spraint (otter poop) was that it was very finely ground and looked like a professional job, this was quite a contrast from the bulky and slightly thicker spraint of the Smooth- Coated otter, “A possible explanation for this”, said Atul, ” could be that the mangrove otters have better food resources and eat a lot more which is why their spraints appear bulkier/thicker” also, (this is my reason) Smooth – coated otters are a whole lot bigger than the Small- clawed ones which could be a reason for the difference. While the team gathered around to check the camera trap for evidence, we were in a for a brilliant surprise. For there was evidence of not only Small -clawed otters on the trap but of Smooth coated otters too!! (we also got evidence of three porcupines and plenty of birds) We were very excited, as it is not common for the two to share common habitat and if they are it would be refereed to as a sympatric population, which is defined as – “organisms whose ranges overlap or are even identical, so that they occur together at least in some places.”
However, Atul said it could be that the Smooth-coated otters were just passing by, as there is no real evidence of them defecating in the same area. The rare possibility of both sharing common habitat however, had thrilled us to bits and we left the camera trap in the same space to gather more evidence. Following this, we further ventured into the forest stream looking for more signs of otter occupancy. After having noted few small-clawed otter spraints, we left the gorgeous forest stream of Sonal to head back to our field station.
The last survey/ location in my whirlwind of a trip was to be our very own backyard, the nut and coconut plantation next to our field station. Loaded with survey sheets, GPS and cameras we embarked on a journey to check whether otters were approving of this habitat or not. A few near drownings, quick sand experiences later, we scrambled up the path, which ran through the plantation to check for otter signs.
Sure enough, as soon as we clawed onto the path, we met with our first smooth- coated otter spraint. A few photographs and rigorous filling up of the data sheet later, we continued along the path and found another spraint. Both the spraints looked more than a week old.
Towards the end of our survey, we came across a tree cavity with civet droppings. Hard as metal, it was impossible to crack open the coffee bean like droppings so we collected some to donate/test in the nearest coffee shop (just joking). “That marks the end of the survey” said Abhishek who was monitoring the distance covered. It also unfortunately marked the end of my trip but it most definitely hasn’t ended my jouney with otters for I will visit them soon, until then, here’s to an “otterly” successful and brilliant trip!