Our Story

North Coast Otters - Public Arts Initiative provided a delightful opportunity for our community to connect with and cultivate appreciation for the charismatic North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) in our clean water habitats.

Why Otters?

North American river otters are top predators in their habitats, which include coastal estuaries, inland rivers, and far-reaching watersheds with clean water. River otters are constantly on the move looking for enough food to keep themselves fit and healthy. If you see a wild otter, wish them well, because in many areas, river otters struggle to make ends meet.

In many eastern states in the USA and southern California counties, river otters had all but disappeared, due to pollution of waterways and habitat loss. Thanks to clean water regulations, habitat restoration, and community support the river otter is making a comeback in many parts of the USA.

Around the world, otters have become threatened in some places due to polluted water and other issues. As a top predator and bio-indicator of water health, they are the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for our watersheds. When their numbers struggle, we know that there is something wrong in the environment.

This is why we chose river otters as our visual ‘spokesperson,’ because they are resilient, and even playful in the face of adversity, and they are a sign of clean water and healthy habitats.

We hope that this project instilled a greater sense of responsibility and care for our region’s river otters and the habitats we share with them.

Merging citizen art and citizen science

Otter exhibit next to otters in the wild

River otters, seen at all times of day on the North Coast, have captured the attention of thousands of community members. From busy harbors to remote rivers, it is not uncommon to see a river otter hunting, playing, or just passing by. In 1999, a citizen science program for submitting river otter observations was created through the Humboldt Wildlife Department. Since then, community volunteers have been collecting wild river otter records as a way to track the quality of North Coast habitats.

The North Coast Otters - Public Arts Initiative arose from a desire to share what we have learned from the citizen science program about wild river otters with the community. Here's a link to our Citizen Science Otter Records page.

Moore Otters

In 2017, leaders from the citizen science project were inspired by a similar public arts initiative by The Art of Fundraising project on behalf of Dartmoor National Park in England.

“We had such a blast searching for the Moorotter sculptures and discovered many new places along the way. I knew right there and then, that we needed to do this on the North Coast—celebrate otters and clean water habitats—so I bought one of the otters in the auction; A Decoration of Buntings (nicknamed, Bunty) by Maria Burns to show everyone! 

Our project is unique in that we are merging the two fields of art and science to celebrate the natural world. - Jeff Black, Citizen Science River Otter Records

In 2019, local artists were contacted through a special partnership with Ink People, North Coast Open Studios, Humboldt Art Department, Crescent City Art (previously, California Redwoods Art Association), and the Trinity County Arts Council.

Artists decorated their 3-foot tall otter sculptures during the fall and winter of 2019, with mediums ranging from oil and acrylic paint, clay and mosaic tile, wire, cloth, plastic trash and paper. We invited the over 100 unique Otter Art sculptures to be displayed at shops, galleries, schools, and other North Coast locations.

A new set of dates were established for the Otter Art Treasure Hunt to help rebuild our communities throughout the North Coast. The Otter Art sculptures found new and permanent homes after they were auctioned at the end, providing valuable funds for future otter studies and student internships with community-based watershed projects.

Goals & Benefits

It was our hope that everyone who interacted with this initiative learned more about art, nature, and science, and to bring our community together as we celebrated artists, clean water, and wonderful otters!


  • Strengthen individual participants’ connection to the region’s rich natural environment.
  • Increase community participation of local volunteers in the Humboldt River Otter Citizen Science Project, which will result in additional insights into wild river otters.
  • Generate funds to support the Humboldt River Otter Records Citizen Science Project and student research opportunities through the creation of paid internships and stipends for Natural History field studies to enhance student success.


  • Artists have transformed an unique 3D canvas from which to share their message through this highly publicized festival.
  • Community members have the opportunity to support students and contribute to ongoing river otter studies.