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Why is Sherlock Holmes an Otter? Meme Investigation Article!

Why is Sherlock Holmes an Otter?

BBC’s Sherlock has spawned an absolute boatload of adorable memes, but one meme in particular became so prevalent that it became widespread in popular culture outside of the fandom and was brought to the attention of the actors themselves. And it’s so simple: Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock in BBC’s Sherlock) looks like an otter. We’ll talk about Cumberbatch’s reaction to that in a minute, but let’s start with this: He doesn’t look that much like an otter, does he? Nothing that would spawn the meme on its own, surely.

So where did this meme start?

The original source is a single piece of fanart, a humble photo series by Red Scharlach showing otters in some of Benedict Cumberbatch’s most iconic poses. It’s adorable, hilarious, and phenomenally endearing. All of the photos of Benedict in the original post are from BBC’s Sherlock and the Sherlock fandom took the ‘otter sherlock’ idea and ran with it. We’ll talk about just where they went with it in a minute. But first, the most immediate question:

Why otters?

The author of the post, an English woman, was inspired to create it after seeing this picture (originally posted by flickr user Ben_from_Dk) of an otter in La Palmyre Zoo in France who has his paws steepled in a very Sherlock-esque position. She posted it on her tumblr on March 19, 2012. And then it went…big. Fast. Since Red Sharlach’s post was first published it has received nearly 56,000 notes, getting shared endlessly on other blogs, throughout Tumblr, Pinterest, and Facebook. Eventually, it became so popular it entered the mainstream, published in the Huffington Post and mentioned in Glamour Magazine.

So how did Red Sharlach respond to the sudden internet fame? The author addressed this question on her tumblr, saying:

For better or worse, I am responsible for the meme Otters Who Look Like Benedict Cumberbatch (OWLLBC). I’ve gradually come to terms with its unexpected cultural impact but I’m not sure Mr Cumberbatch has, for which I can only apologize profusely.

Was the “Otter Meme” referenced in Cabin Pressure?

Some fans speculated that the “Cumberotters” were inspired by an episode of BBC’s radio show Cabin Pressure. Cabin Pressure also stars Benedict Cumberbatch, and same-actor connections often lead to fandom crossovers. But why Cabin Pressure? Well, the radio show had a long sketch on otters, starting with how many otters could fit in a commercial airplane and ending with the statement:

MARTIN: Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t think the Civil Aviation Authority would be too keen on the idea.
DOUGLAS: To be quite honest with you, Captain, I don’t think there’s a whole lot about this plane full of unsupervised otters the CAA is going to love.

(Cabin Pressure, Ottery St Mary)

So was it a reference to our favorite otter photo series?

In a word, no. The Cabin Pressure episode in question, Ottery St Mary, Season 3 Episode 4, aired almost a full year before the OWLLBC photoset appeared on tumblr. But Red Scharlach did say she’d seen the episode and it’d influenced her Cumberbatch otter photo series!

Where will I find otters in fandom?

Everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Sherlock’s fandom has dived into this meme. You’ll find adorable fan art popping up every day, like this “Otterly Bored” digital painting by catsmaycry.

Check out this drawing of otter-Sherlock and hedgehog-John by Happysketch.


Glad-sad painted an absolutely gorgeous bag of Sherlock and John for ycarinski on Deviantart. Why is John a hedgehog? Well, that’s a whole new subject – one we’ll cover in our next post!

Fan artists took on the photo series idea and reveled in it. What about fanfiction? The otter photo series was an inherently visual joke, but fortunately that didn’t slow the otter meme down at all. Fanfiction writers didn’t miss a beat.

High-Functioning Ginger lets John Watson discover the meme himself in her fanfiction The Detective and His Blogger.

“People think you look like an otter.” JW

“They’re obviously imbeciles. I do not in any way resemble a semi-aquatic mammal.” SH

The Detective and His Blogger by High-Functioning Ginger

Other fanfictions really commit to this meme by giving their work the AU treatment where each character from Sherlock has an animal counterpart. One standout is “A Study in Mink” by mycake: Sherlock, as an otter, teams up with John, a hedgehog, and Lestrade, a silver fox (naturally) to solve the murder of some chickens.

So we can safely say the otter meme was fully adopted across the Sherlock Fandom.

The best part?

This meme doesn’t have any visual components from the BBC show. It doesn’t require a picture of Benedict Cumberbatch’s face or any of BBC’s dialogue, sets, images or costumes.

What does that mean?

You can participate in it without fear of stepping on BBC’s copyrights. And that means mugs, t-shirts, clocks, leggings, laptop sleeves, backpacks, and scarves. Fanfiction, comics, merchandise and art has bloomed and there’s no end in sight.

Does Benedict know about the Sherlock Otter Meme?

Definitely. You can watch him respond to it the first time here in his interview with Chris Van Vliet!

The first time? Does that mean there were others?

Oh, yeah. In fact, the otter meme then featured front and center in one of Benedict’s most famous interviews. During his appearance on The Graham Norton Show with Johnny Depp to promote Black Mass in 2015, Benedict even graciously recreated several more otter faces while Johnny Depp looked on wearing an expression of mild concern. Ultimately, when trying to recreate the final picture, Benedict showed off his ability to commit to a role by flying through the air to tackle a giant teddy bear. Really, you should just watch it; words don’t do it justice.

Benedict seems to have fully embraced the otter comparisons. In a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter he said: “It’s the blessing of having a weird face — somewhere between an otter and something people find vaguely attractive. Or just an otter, which is vaguely attractive…”

It is perhaps due to the lovable faces of otters that the meme caught on so strong. Whatever the reason, we’re glad it did. It’s become one of the best known memes in the Sherlock fandom and one of the best represented in fan art, references, and merchandise. And don’t worry, we remember we promised to explain Otter Sherlock’s partner, Hedgehog John. Check in next week!

Looking for more memes? Sign up to our mailing list to get more meme explorations, fandom-specific term rundowns, and themed recommendation lists. Already signed up? Stay tuned for next week’s post: Why is John a Hedgehog?

Or go check out our previous posts:

John Watson and Jam


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ThinkingViolet has been an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes since she first read The Hound of the Baskervilles at age 7. She loves baking, kickboxing, and trivia nights with friends. ThinkingViolet is currently writing a Labyrinth fanfiction called "A Friend in Need.

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