Sea Otters, Elkhorn Slough, California

My plan today was to troll the California coastal cams for elephant seals. I can sometimes spend hours searching out the right webcam. But even though it’s finally sunny here in Portland, south of San Francisco rain pelts the camera and ripples the water of the Elkhorn Slough, constantly disrupting the autofocus so that all you can see is an impressionistic green and gray and brown landscape that might be there. The camera still auto-pans every few seconds, coming to rest behind a spiderweb built on the camera’s protective plastic screen, quivering in the wind. The slough calls this its OtterCam, as if the moniker could will the cute and cuddly pups into existence that grow up in its sheltered waters each spring. And then I do see two, performing barrel rolls on top of the water, rubbing their bellies to help the rain penetrate the dense under layer of their fur, but the camera is indifferent and it soon moves on. It makes no difference to the camera that it’s found and focused on the very subject it is meant to film. What mattes is covering the maximum amount of territory, zooming in and out at regular intervals on the same small patch of still and muddy shore, and panning through the same spiderweb over and over. What matters is the act of observation and recording, the consistent mapping from an unchanged perspective. I challenge myself to notice something different each time—the low barn roofs in the background, the regular march of the telephone wires, flocks of grainy white birds that stutter past, the blue and purple zip ties that attach the camera to a metal poll and occasionally enter the frame. In one spot a tongue of water reverses current, tiny waves moving in the opposite direction from the rest of the water. And occasionally an otter, who is almost immediately abandoned in favor of the sedge grass nodding its heavy-seeded heads in a stiff wind.