Sue Spector was kayaking with her husband down the pristine Braden River in western Florida when she spotted an otter.
Spector, 77, from Sarasota, turned around in her boat early Sunday morning and, catching a glimpse of the small river dweller, thought to herself, "Oh, this is a cute otter," she told the Tampa Bay Times.
The animal, usually known for its curiosity and playful demeanor, leaped onto the kayak and lunged at Spector.
"Then we had this little tug of war," she told the Tampa Bay Times. "I tried to get him off of my kayak and I screamed extremely loud so I could try and scare him off but that didn't work. It took some time, but I fought with him, my husband jumped in and other people came by to help."
The kayak rolled.
The couple were thrown into the water - half-swimming, half-flailing their paddles to try to fend off the animal.
"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 affiliate WTVT. "When you're [in the middle of] it you don't have a lot of thought except you hope you survive."
Spector and her husband climbed on their guide's kayak and began paddling "as fast as we could," she told the Times. "The otter followed us but didn't attack again."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in a statement earlier this week that the agency's law enforcement officers were searching for an "aggressive otter" after four kayakers were injured in separate attacks Saturday and Sunday on the Braden River in Manatee County. The FWC warned that those who are bitten or scratched by wild animals should seek medical attention because they can carry rabies, a potentially deadly virus that attacks the central nervous system.
Spector could not immediately be reached for comment.
Nicole Duplaix, who chairs the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Otter Specialist Group, said otters are known for being friendly animals but, like most other creatures, keep their distance from humans.
She said that otter attacks involving humans are "extremely rare" but that when they do occur, there is usually a reason.
"An unprovoked attack is very un-otter-like, unless there's a cause you can't see," Duplaix, who teaches conservation biology at Oregon State University, said Thursday in a phone interview with The Washington Post.
She said that in instances in which otters have attacked, people had gotten too close to mothers with cubs or to their dens.
There are 13 species of otters around the world, according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System. In the United States, there are sea otters and the North American river otter, or Canadian otters.
River otters, which weigh between 10 and 33 pounds, have long slender bodies, short legs and webbed toes, according to a fact sheet from the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.
The creatures, which often share aquatic habitats with beavers, enjoy "unpolluted water with a minimal human disturbance," according to the National Zoo:
"A North American river otter's home range can be as large as 30 square miles (78 square kilometers), but a typical territory is 3 to 15 square miles (4.8 to 24 square kilometers). That home range shrinks drastically during breeding and rearing season.
"While river otters tend to live alone or in pairs, they often socialize in groups and are known for their playful behavior. Their long, agile bodies enable them to quickly twist, turn, roll and dive, and they are frequently seen sliding or burrowing in the mud or snow. There is evidence that river otters' play activities strengthen social bonds, improve hunting techniques and scent mark territories. They spend a significant portion of the day scent marking territory by urinating, defecating, scratching and rubbing their scent glands on rocks and trees."
The FWC said river otters, which belong to the weasel family, are not typically considered a threat to humans.
The agency said that within the past year, there have not been any other reports of otter attacks in Manatee County, but it urged people to "reduce encounters with otters and other wildlife by maintaining your distance and not approaching otters or other wildlife, not feeding otters or other wildlife, and keeping pets leashed and supervised."
Duplaix, with the Otter Specialist Group, an organization responsible for the global conservation of otters, said that "even a cornered rat can do a lot of damage" and that otters are no exception.
"For an otter to come toward you is really exceptional," she said. Duplaix advises people to watch otters only from a distance, taking special care not approach their cubs or their dens.
In the Florida case, wildlife authorities said witnesses reported that the otter had been chasing boats. Witnesses also suggested that the creature may have been hunted by an alligator.
Officials say that if the otter is found, it will be tested for rabies.
Spector, who suffered injuries to her arm, nose and ear during the weekend otter attack, has been treated for rabies as a precaution, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Author information: Lindsey Bever is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post, covering national news with an emphasis on health.