It is well known among conservationists that the best way to enthuse people about the environment is to give them a ‘magic moment’ experience in nature.
Among the many attractions that Hermanus offers, there is always the possibility of an unexpected encounter with wildlife. We are charmed by garden Acraea butterflies and their spiky caterpillars, an Angulate tortoise male seeing off a rival, a dung beetle steadfastly rolling his ball of dung to who knows where.
There is a small group of ladies who like to swim in the icy sea before dawn every weekday. While this habit holds no appeal for me, I must admit that it does have its compensations. Over the last few years they have noticed a family of Cape Clawless otters observing their activities in the water. The ladies have never paid them any pointed attention, so as not to ‘spook’ them.
Then, a few weeks ago, they arrived at their swimming spot to find two otters in the water right where the ladies always enter the sea. They stood still, not wanting to scare the otters away, Far from it. The little otter heads kept bobbing up out of the water, looking straight at them. They made no attempt to swim away. After some time, one of the ladies decided that the game had gone on long enough, and slowly entered the water. She swam her usual length of backstroke, but to her amazement one otter followed her, seemingly fascinated by her feet. When she turned back and changed to crawl, every time she turned her head to take a breath, there was an otter’s face next to hers.
Meanwhile, one of the other ladies had ventured waist-deep into the water with the rest of the group. To her great surprise and delight, the otters found her equally interesting. They swam around her legs, one even brushing up against her. It was like a detailed inspection of what these humans were all about. After satisfying themselves that humans were not edible and these ones at least posed no harm, they got out of the water and left.
The humans were left almost stunned with delight at this amazingly special encounter. Magic moments, indeed.
You will notice that I deliberately did not identify the location of the encounter. It is a sad truth that publicity attracts more people, which will inevitably destroy the very experience they came for.
Cape Clawless otters (Aonyx capensis), favour river mouths and wetlands near protected coastlines where riverine vegetation provides shelter. This is not surprising as they hunt in both fresh and salt water. A marine protected area provides ample food in the form of crabs, rock lobsters and urchins. But they are dependent on fresh water to wash the salt off their very thick fur that protects them from the cold water.
My own magic moment came soon after we settled in Hermanus. Our house looked out over the Mossel River. Baboons often moved down the river from Fernkloof to the sea where they feasted on shellfish and other goodies washed up on the shore. One day the troop took a little down-time on my lawn. I had never encountered baboons before, but I decided to approach them very slowly.
Baboons are very good at reading body language and they could sense that I was not afraid and meant them no harm. I stopped within about 10 meters of them and stood dead still. A female baboon was eating bits of grass, with a tiny baby clutched to her chest. After a moment of observing me she put the baby down on the grass. I was overwhelmed with emotion that the mother felt safe enough with me to let go of her baby.
That was not my last encounter with this troop. From our house, steps ran down the embankment to the river. The baboons, especially the youngsters, loved that river. They would scramble up the trees on the bank, swing on the branches and jump into the water.
Repeatedly. I sat on the steps, enchanted by their antics. After a while the adult female came and sat on the step just below mine, and together we watched the antics of the little ones at play. That was my own magic moment.
Not too long after that, baboons were labelled “problem animals” and the dynamic between people and baboons changed. I still occasionally encountered them foraging in Fernkloof while walking on my own. I would sit down and pretend to be eating some grass. They largely ignored me, but they had become distrustful of humans and soon moved away from my vicinity.
Many more people have since arrived in Hermanus, gradually taking over territory that we once shared with our wild neighbours and ‘sanitising’ our wildlife experiences.
I miss those days.