“I Thought I was a Goner!” River Otters Attack Yet Another Swimmer in California

Earlier this summer, Field & Stream reported on two separate river otter attacks in the Golden State, including one in mid-July at Serene Lake near Lake Tahoe. At around noon on September 3rd, the otters at Serene Lake struck again. 

Matt Leffers, a 69-year-old general contractor from San Francisco, was staying at a lakeside family cabin for summer vacation when the incident occurred. Leffers had heard about the July attack, but he’s training for a Triathlon and decided to brave the waters of Serene Lake anyway, he said. 

“Normally I would swim around the lake, but I knew where she got bit, so I didn’t go over to that side of it,” Leffers tells Field & Stream. “I was swimming back to the cabin, and I felt something tug hard on my right calf.”

Leffers initially thought his wife had swum out and was trying to surprise him—but when he looked back, nobody was there. Soon, he spotted two otters. “I’m like, ‘Oh, shit,’” he recalls. “They bit me at least ten times and would not let me escape. I got bit on every single limb.”

Leffers had heard that in the case of an attack from a marine mammal its best to make yourself look uninteresting. So he tried to ignore the otters and float on his back. “Then they bit my ass,” says Leffers. “It really hurt. They had me trapped. They were so fast. I could only see them when they popped their heads out of the water near me. I started screaming for help, but there was nobody on the lake.

“Then, out of the blue, my wife came in on a paddle board,” he adds. She’d heard his shouts from the cabin. “I had never been more relieved in my life because I’d thought I was a goner. I thought I was done.”

Leffers managed to scramble up onto the paddle board, and his wife Kristie paddled back to shore. Leffers was treated for his wounds at the Tahoe Forest Hospital ER by Dr. Martin Rosengreen—the same doctor who treated several other otter attack victims in the area earlier this summer. 

Rosengreen irrigated Leffers’s puncture wounds, gave him 8 stitches for a deep cut on his arm, and administered the first of a series of rabies shots. “I seem to be healing up pretty quick, except when I roll over it hurts, because the bites are pretty deep,” he says. 

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Leffers reported the attack to the California Department of Parks and Wildlife but has not heard if the agency will take action. River otter attacks are unusual but they do occur. The small, semiaquatic mammals are known to become aggressive when they feel cornered, territorial, or when protecting their young. Earlier this year, three women were attacked by aggressive otters while tubing on a popular river in Montana, one of whom had to be airlifted to a nearby hospital.

“It was like escaping a life-or-death situation. I can’t tell you how traumatic it was. It was a nightmare,” says Leffers. “I love to swim and have a big triathlon coming up in October. I can’t wait to get back in the water, but I am not getting back into Serene Lake this year.”