They come in a shout, a brief cry of astonishment – something emerging from the water, sleek and brown and running across a small island before slipping back in with barely a ripple to form gravestone to their presence. We blink and it is over. The one picture I manage to snap is ridiculously over-exposed; not even one body is visible. A field of white.
I sigh. I have waited to see otters for years, it feels. The Bishan 10 did not abandon my Facebook feed for several weeks. Articles of residents complaining at Sentosa perplex me: what does one care for a few fish with the pleasure of having otters in your backyard? (The thousand-dollar price tags of said fish, of course, are of little consequence.) Even in Valparai, someone studying otters kept pointing out places to me: oh, I saw them here once. Oh, I saw them there.
I am a little frustrated. And now I have seen them, and it is hardly enough.
I examine a flock of whimbrel with focused attention, determined not to let another surprise slip out of reach. Perhaps a Dowitcher (such a lovely name – conjuring up black cats and broomsticks!) hides in the brown.
Of course there is nothing. The whimbrels are steadfastly uniform, a forest of curving beaks.
A kingfisher cries in the distance. The afternoon hangs heavily about me, humidity seeping into my bones.
I have just turned my attention to a closer group of greenshanks – Pacific Golden Plovers, perhaps, in their midst? – when a shout heralds me. Come, come quick!
I am running in the space of a second, one hand grasping camera, another binoculars, backpack bouncing, half-open. I arrive at the next hide, breathless, and there they are.
They’re swimming through the water, heads bobbing up and down, only a couple meters apart, the same family. I laugh out loud, hardly believing it. Here we are again! One telescopes out of the water and swivels around, examining the terrain; his whiskers quiver, outlined against the sunlight.
Patterns of ripples demarcate the path of the rest. They submarine in and out, heads poking briefly; I turn and turn with my camera, unsure where to look, where to focus; they seem to be everywhere. A group of three splinters off and heads towards a group of trees closer towards us – younger ones, it seems, and one pauses to look at us solemnly before diving, seal-like, into the water.
Near an embankment running out from where we are standing, two more have stationed themselves. Suddenly, one dives deep in the water and emerges with a flashing piece of silver: a fish. They hold it neatly between their two paws, gentleman-like, look it over, feeling its shape. The head of the fish alone is twice theirs. Then in a lightning movement they rips a huge chunk out of its back. Their maw reddens as they tears another out; they repositions the fish with his paws, then takes another huge bite. The silver disappears quickly, replaced by red. Methodically, they break it down. Their teeth are visible through the binoculars. They look as though they are beaming.
The three young ones disappear into the grove of trees. The other one at the embankment emerges with a fish of their own. I am surrounded in the best possible way. Each creature is a story in itself. I can feel the memories piling up around me; I am inundated; the otters are smooth, are formal, are funny. They are creating art pieces in their ripples, in their movements. Their muscles shimmer in the sunlight.
This is why. This is why.
And then it is like an invisible bell sounds and the three emerge from the mangroves and the ones with fish discard their catches with a self-satisfied smack of the lips. In one unified body they emerge from the water and run across the embankment. They pause at the top. A grey heron stalks serenely by.
They look back, once. Then: they run over to the other side, sink into the water. They float for a few moments. I put down my camera and just look. They do not look back. I do not matter to them.
Then with barely a splash they are gone.
I let out a long breath that I feel I have been holding for a very long time.