Big Lagoon swimmer survives attacking otter swarm

LAGOON DWELLERS A quartet of river otters. Via Humboldt State University Dept. of Wildlife

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

BIG LAGOON – A woman swimming at Big Lagoon on the morning of June 24 was attacked by four river otters who bit her multiple times, resulting in a trip to an emergency room and a precautionary series of rabies shots.

“It was scary,” said the victim, who asked that her name not be used. “It was surreal.”

Wearing a wetsuit, cap, gloves and booties, the swimmer entered the water at the boat ramp at Big Lagoon County Park at about 8 a.m., earlier than her usual morning swim time.

She was swimming about 80 yards off the boat ramp when the otters attacked her.

“I was just minding my own business and all of a sudden something grabs me hard,” the woman said. For a split second the swimmer, who lives part of the year in Hawaii, when she’s not residing in Big Lagoon, thought it was a shark or a seal, but then looked and saw that she was surrounded by river otters.

“They just kept coming,” she said. “I screamed at them.”

As the otters bit her, she screamed and yelled and swam for the shore. 

A McKinleyville woman, who also asked not to be identified, witnessed the attack. She and some other swimmers were walking north on the sand spit, preparing to enter the water beyond the narrow inlet that leads to the boat ramp.

“We hear this screaming,” the witness said. 

The victim was surrounded by four river otters, their bodies about three-quarters out of the water.

“They had her basically surrounded,” the witness said. “She’s screaming and swimming.”

The witness and a fellow swimmer ran to help the woman. “We were hollering and waving our arms,” she said. They looked for driftwood and rocks to fend off the otters.

Then the bite victim got close to the shore, stood up and got out of the water.

“As soon as she stood up, the otters just disappeared,” the witness said.

The victim said that when she got out of the water, she was shaking, but she wasn’t cold.

“I think I was in shock,” the victim said.

“She was seriously wounded,” the witness said.

The victim went to her home in Big Lagoon, showered and cleaned her wounds. Then she went to Redwood Urgent Care in Eureka, but was told to go to Mad River Community Hospital in Arcata, where she could get a rabies shot.

She required  intravenous antibiotics and had to undergo a series of rabies shots. The victim said she counted about 30 bite marks.

The witness said she suspects that there is an otter den somewhere near the boat ramp and that the otters may have been protecting their pups.

“It’s a very rich area,” she said. 

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Open water swimmer Lauren Lester, who has been swimming in local waterways for nearly a decade, said that “otters are a real risk.”

Although the creatures are cute and cuddly looking, they’re wild animals and can be dangerous.

“They have a lot of teeth, they’re wild animals and they’re going to protect their babies,” Lester said.

Lester said that she was bit by an otter while swimming in Stone Lagoon in 2019. Fortunately, the bite didn’t break through her skin, so she didn’t need to get the rabies shots.

Lester said that there are also otters with babies at Stone Lagoon, where a person was bitten on the July 4 weekend.

Lester said that swimmers should take precautions. First, scan the area before entering the water to make sure there are no otters around. Also, try to stay away from the water’s edge and get into the open water. Better yet, have someone in a boat following you and keeping an eye out for the otters, Lester said.

But even with these precautions, there’s no guarantee that you won’t have an encounter with an otter.

The incident prompted the Humboldt County Public Works Parks Division to post a warning notice at Big Lagoon County Park that states “BE ALERT FOR RIVER OTTERS. On June 24, 2021, Humboldt County Parks received a report that a person was bitten multiple times by a river otter while swimming in Big Lagoon and required medical care at a hospital. Although incidents like this are rare, animals such as otters can be aggressive especially when protecting their young. Visitors are advised to be watchful for river otters while swimming, paddling, or walking near the shoreline and to keep a safe distance away from the animals. In the event of a medical emergency, immediately call 9-1-1.”



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