It takes us a while to find them. Paddling slowly across Sandoval Lake, deep in the Peruvian Amazon, we have our eyes keenly focused on the water around us. It's the splashing in the distance that first alerts us to their position. We move closer and then spot them — the giant otters of South America.
Although these animals are one of the clear highlights here at Sandoval Lake, the area is filled with wildlife. Caimans, monkeys, macaws, and dozens of other significant species live in the water and the rainforest surrounding it. From our base at the Sandoval Lake Lodge, we spend several days walking or boating around to see the animals and the habitats they live in.
While there are quite a few places to stay within reach of the nearby city of Puerto Maldonado, this is one of the most secluded options. To arrive, the journey consists of a motorboat up the main river, a long walk along a muddy track and then a canoe ride across the lake to our accommodation.
The long journey in, though, means we find ourselves in a land where humans are in the minority and the animals rule supreme. The sun rises and sets over vast tracts of untouched rainforest that we feel like mere visitors in, not owners of. It is the Amazon at its best and it's a wonderful experience to be surrounded by peaceful nature far from the busy cities of Peru.
The giant otters once made a home of much of the South American continent, but decades of hunting and habitat destruction have drastically reduced their numbers. Now, only a few thousand are left in the wild. This lake is one of the few places where they still live in any significant number and is the best spot to see them.
The otters we are watching from the boat are in a family of about eight. Unlike many other similar species, giant otters are social animals and spend most of their time in the family group. They are pretty peaceful but can get aggressive to protect each other and their territory. We maintain a respectful distance.
The adults of the group are feeding and each of them dives down into the lake and then re-emerges at the surface with a fish in its mouth. At first it looks like the younger otters are playing with each other, but, on closer examination, it appears that they are practicing fishing themselves; after a bit of splashing, they also appear on the top of the water with fish in their mouths. Two of the young otters swim to the shore and sit on a log while they eat their breakfast giving me a chance to get a good look at them.
With bulging eyes and an angled skull, their heads make them seem almost alien in some ways. But their thick chocolate-brown fur is beautiful and smooth — and what made this species so attractive to hunters. Their webbed feet and long tail are clearly powerful and allow them to swim through the water effortlessly.
It's still early in the morning and the sun is coming up. It gets brighter as we paddle the boat, following the otters as they move along one of the shorelines. For about half an hour we watch them swim, play and fish — all the while with one eye on us. But by the time we finally move on and head back to the lodge, I swear the otters give us a bit of a wave goodbye!