Singapore’s Smooth-Coated Otters: An Urban Resurgence

singapore otters

For a small island city-state that is only about 710 square kilometers, Singapore is rich in biodiversity.

otters in singapore

With conserved green spaces such as rainforests and mangroves, Singapore has a range of habitats for an estimated 35,000 to 45,000 species of native flora and fauna.

An animal that has seen a resurgence in its population is the smooth-coated otter, due to conservation efforts as well as a cleanup of the waterways over the past decade.

Smooth-coated otters

Smooth-coated otters are highly adaptable and can thrive in a variety of habitats, including rivers, coastal waters, mangrove swamps, and even in parks and reservoirs within the city.

For an animal considered elusive within Southeast Asia, the otters in Singapore have adapted remarkably well to the urban landscape, and it is not uncommon to see a family of them along the waterways.

Over the past 7 years, I have been actively tracking them and documenting their behavior through photography; what started out as a hobby became so much more.

smooth-coated otters singapore

Living in a coastal town (Pasir Ris), I saw my first smooth-coated otter family in 2008 by a beach, and I remember them being skittish toward human presence, maintaining a huge distance from beachgoers as they swam past.

Tailing them for about half an hour, I eventually lost them in a mangrove forest.

It was not until 2017 that a family of 16 otters established a holt in Pasir Ris, and I was able to actively start tracking them with my trusty DSLR in hand.

My go-to equipment would be the Canon 5D Mark III or the Canon R5, paired with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens.

Photographing a species in depth

Cycling for hours by the coast, I would eventually realize that these otters were active in the early mornings and evenings and had preferred spots along the beach and mangroves where they would come up and roll on the sand, as well as rest.

urban otters

Adopting a prone position, I was able to keep my profile small and low, allowing the otters to get comfortable with my presence from a distance away. Photographing otters at eye level also enables me to capture the environment that the animal is in.

Some curious individuals would even come up to me to investigate occasionally, but by remaining calm and still, the otters would soon lose interest and rejoin their family.

This allowed me to spend hours observing their behavior, as well as the social dynamics within the family.

otters of singapore

When photographing otters, as a personal rule of thumb, I always try to keep my shutter speed at 1/1000s or faster, as some of the behavior they exhibit can be dynamic, especially during playfights.

Observations on behavior

Over the years, I have managed to observe how different otter families around the country behave in the presence of humans.

The otters that live by the coast tend to be shyer and more elusive compared to their city counterparts, and I always look forward to capturing their interactions with humans they encounter.

Keeping in mind that these are wild animals, I will always make sure that the otters are undisturbed by my presence, and if they exhibit any signs of discomfort, I will immediately increase the distance between us.

smooth-coated otter habitat and behaviour

There have been previous biting incidents, and in almost all cases, the otters were triggered by humans getting too close, especially when they have pups in the family.

With all these factors considered, it is not instinctive for the smooth-coated otters in Singapore to be aggressive towards people, and if we respect their boundaries, they make excellent subjects for photography.

A family of urban otters

One of my favorite families to photograph within the city is the Zouk smooth-coated otter family. Once a family of 3, they are now 17 strong and are the most dominant family in the city center.

They were named ‘Zouk’ after a nightclub after they had their first batch of pups within its vicinity.

otter family in singapore

Otter pups only emerge from their holt at about 5 to 6 weeks old, and only for short periods of time, with the adults being fiercely protective of them.

When photographing otters and their pups, I always try to keep a larger distance, so a 400mm lens comes in handy. Getting photos of pups requires lots of patience, but the end results are always worth the wait.

When pups are ready, the adult otters start ushering them into the nearby Singapore River, where the pups receive their first swimming lesson.

otter pups learning to swim

Otter pups are not born with the ability to swim, and under the watchful eyes and guidance of the adults, they will eventually grow to be proficient in water.

Some of these pups sadly don’t survive to adulthood, as they become casualties of territorial fights between rival families in the heavily contested river.

singapore otters

To showcase the urban habitat that these otters are living in, I always try to frame them against some of the prominent landmarks that Singapore has to offer whenever the opportunity presents itself.

It can be easy to predict where the otters come up on land to dry off or spraint as they have their usual spots within the city. Knowing the land routes they take while traversing between waterways also helps me set up my composition way before the otters step into my frame.

In conclusion

When I started this photography journey, it was more of a personal project, and I could not have anticipated where it would take me in the future.

Today, I am actively involved in discussions with major stakeholders about the conservation of this species and how we can educate other members of the public on coexistence with our local biodiversity, not just otters.

The dynamics of the otters and their presence in Singapore are also constantly evolving and are closely monitored by a group of dedicated volunteers who have spent so much time working to safeguard every individual otter.

I consider it a privilege to be able to document the lives of our smooth-coated otters as they make Singapore their home and hope to continue to tell their stories through my photos for a long time to come.

Visit Yong Lin's website

Wildlife photographer Long Yin Tan has been tracking and documenting the resurgence of smooth coated otter population his home country Singapore for the last eight years. Through his photography, he hopes to be able to inspire and share the message of coexistence between humans and their local biodiversity, no matter where they are.

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