I am looking for a good romp.

A romp is a group or pack of otters and in this season of snow and ice, these mammals have left their mark. The evidence can be seen at watering holes Islandwide. Elusive river otters (the Island’s only variety) leave behind tracks, slides, and scat (droppings).

It would not be surprising if you don’t see the animal itself at all this winter. Otters are night owls, hunting when the sun goes down. They are most active early in the evening through the early morning.

Otters are a quick study, running up to 18 miles per hour on land and swimming at speeds up to seven miles an hour. Not only are they fast, but they are sure-footed. Look for their track, or print, which appears as five pointed toes around a heel pad, three inches wide and about three and a half long. These semi-aquatic animals are usually seen near water and often move between ponds and coves.

Slipping and sliding belly-flop style is another method that river otters use for travel. They slide down pond banks and across the frozen surface of ponds, sliding distances of up to 25 feet over the ice! Otters can then dive down (up to 60 feet) into the water for a snack, holding their breath for eight minutes.

Even if they can hold their breath, other functions cannot wait. Otters establish latrine sites where they deposit their waste: pellets made up mainly of fish scales.

Otters can eat many things, although they generally prefer fish. With 36 teeth, they chew their food well. It seems that the meal is never enough, though. Otters fish often, up to five hours a day (eight hours when nursing), to catch their required daily intake of three pounds of fish per day.

This large food supply is quickly depleted due to their high metabolism that keeps them warm in the cold weather and frigid waters. To further foil the chilly conditions, soft fur covered by long guard hair traps air so that when the otters dive they have added insulation to keep both warm and dry.

Dry and warm is how home should be. An otter may be holed up — or holt up — in a bankside home that you may easily overlook, if the otter has done its job well. A holt is an otter’s den, found along the banks of ponds in hollows of trees or under rocks. In these dens, otters raise their cubs, or pups. Winter is the breeding season, but since otters have delayed implantation, they can stall birthing for up to eight months. Gestation is only two months once the embryo is implanted, and most often birthing takes place in their den in early spring.

While the arrival of babies might be cause for celebration, otters are known for their general merriment. They are notorious for their playful nature and, in addition to sliding down the banks, they are often observed chasing their tails, wrestling, rolling around and batting around their food.

“It is,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “a happy talent to know how to play.” No gift of the otter’s is more conspicuous and it is even more joyful that they have a romper room in which to do it.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.