It was supposed to be a peaceful morning on the river, but Marsha Wikle said it turned into quite the opposite when an otter attacked members of her kayak group.
Wikle was planning to spend Sunday morning leading a group of about nine people through a familiar stretch of the Braden River, near Linger Lodge.
A former forester and master naturalist, Wikle said she also received training through the American Canoe Association. As the trip leader, she encouraged those in her Sunday group to travel upstream, ahead of her, so they could see wildlife.
“I told them to keep an eye out for otters,” Wikle said, noting that she saw some a couple weeks ago on another trip.
But their trip was interrupted when she said an otter attacked one of the kayakers.
Sue Spector, who spoke with FOX 13, said she needed stitches as a result of the attack.
“It was very pristine and very nice and I heard someone make a comment that, ‘Oh, there's an otter!’” Spector told FOX 13. “And then all of a sudden he jumped on the kayak and two seconds later he jumped on me.”
A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman confirmed that the agency is investigating reports of kayakers injured by a river otter on the Braden River in Manatee County over the weekend, and officials are looking for the otter.
The first report was received Saturday by FWC, saying two people were injured after they were bitten by a river otter while kayaking, according to a statement from FWC public information coordinator Melody Kilborn.
On Sunday, FWC received two more reports of kayakers who were attacked and bitten by a river otter about two miles from the previous day’s attack.
Initial reports said the otter was chasing boats and acting aggressively, some even reported seeing the otter come into contact with an alligator. It was not known if the otter survived the interaction with the alligator, Kilborn said.
About 30 minutes and roughly a mile into their Sunday morning paddle, Wikle heard a whistle blow five times.
“I couldn’t hear the scream but I heard the whistle,” Wikle said. “I quickly paddled to join the lead group where I saw two women splashing their paddles in the water.”
That’s when Wikle noticed the otter and two people who were out of their kayaks standing in the four-foot deep water. One of them, a woman in her 70s, according to Wikle, was bleeding, with wounds on her hands, nose and part of her earlobe dangling, Wikle recalled. The otter, she said, had attacked the woman as well as scratched the arm of a second woman. Both went to the hospital to be treated for possible rabies, according to Wikle.
“I took my paddle and I tried to get him off of me and he wouldn't let go and I kept screaming, I kept beating him with a paddle,” Spector told FOX 13. “When you're [in the middle of] it you don't have a lot of thought except you hope you survive.”
Spector went to the emergency room where she was treated for rabies and put on antibiotics, according to FOX 13.
Wikle said she heard about the other attack, and said that the otter her group encountered Sunday chased some of their kayaks as they turned back toward Linger Lodge.
She said she has encountered otters many times before, but never like this.
“I have probably been six places on six rivers with otters before and you talk to anybody, they’re elusive, they’re shy, they’re a little curious. They don’t like to be close to humans. … So this is extremely unusual behavior for otters,” Wikle said.
Since Jan. 1, 2017, there have been no other reports received by the FWC of river otters biting or scratching people in Manatee County, but rare attacks have been documented in previous years, according to Kilborn. River otters are typically not a threat to people, she said.
An ABC News report from 2010 detailed a reported otter attack in South Florida.
No river otters have tested positive for rabies, but there is a concern that the otters can carry the potentially deadly disease, according to the Florida Department of Health and FWC.
FWC officials will work with the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County to inform the public, and biologists plan to place fliers at two boat ramps along the river to notify visitors of the aggressive otter.
After the surprise encounter, Wikle and her group were able to get everyone back in their kayaks, turn around and paddle about a mile back to Linger Lodge.
The experience won’t keep Wikle off the river, but she did have some advice for those looking to go out paddling.
“My advice would be to of course respect nature, and understand even in a peaceful setting it could turn on you. So always have an escape route and understand what to do with your kayak. Learn some self rescue,” Wikle said.
Anyone who sees any unusual behavior such as a river otter approaching pets or acting aggressively, or to report a sighting, should contact the FWC at 888-404-3922.
Anyone bitten or scratched by a wild animal should immediately seek medical assistance and contact the Florida Department of Health at 941-748-0747.