Our Window on Nature

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Sea Otters

Filed under: Mammals — Lowell Christie -- May 1, 2006 @ 3:19 pm

SeaOtterWild animals are usually hard to see, except for the squirrels and chipmunks that sometimes overrun our campsites. Most mammals either spend the daytime in hiding or are so secretive that an occasional glimpse is all you ever get. Not so with the Pacific Coast’s sea otters. Maybe that’s why they’re one of the favorite mammals of the West.

Tour buses make regular stops to see the otters – they are that easy to find. They live in the kelp beds along the rocky coast from central California through Alaska, and on to Siberia. But in many present sites, the otter is there only because of the actions of man. That seems fitting, for in the late 1800s it was the actions of man that almost wiped them out.

The sea otter’s original range stretched from Mexico north to Alaska, and then west all the way to Japan. But hunters found the otter’s pelt finer than those of most of the land creatures he had already hunted into scarcity. The otter became so popular that in 1903, highquality skins were selling in London for as much as $1,100 each. No wonder the otter began to disappear.

Most people thought the sea otter was extinct in the southern part of its range. Except for a few isolated sightings, by 1911 it was no longer being reported south of Alaska. The United States, Russia, Great Britian, and Japan then agreed to stop killing the animals. But a few people living along the coast of California knew better.

Some ranchers in the area, as well as members of the Coast Guard serving at Point Sur lighthouse, had seen a small herd of more than a dozen animals living beyond the surf. Wisely, they kept their secret and gave the otters time to build up their numbers.

In 1938, however, a herd of more than 50 animals was “discovered” rafting in the seaweed just south of Carmel. They immediately became a stellar tourist attraction that has continued to this day.

Some of our favorite campgrounds just happen to be within the sea otter’s slowly expanding range. Our most dependable sightings come from two national forest campgrounds situated on the cliffs of Highway 1 between Cambria and Big Sur. From the bluffs at Kirk Creek Campground, or at Plaskett Creek Campground a few miles away, a pair of binoculars allows you to watch the antics of sea otters as they live and play among the kelp beds.

The kind of kelp favored by otters is that which is kept floating by huge air-filled bladders on the stems. Take a quick glance at the vegetation and that is all you see. But with more study you notice that some of those “air-sacks” are actualy otter heads, and one occasionally disappears beneath the waves to search the ocean bottom for a snack.

When the otter finds something to eat, it comes back up to the kelp bed and puts on a show for the tourists. The average adult otter eats 10 to 15 pounds of food each day. It may bring up a sea urchin, a snail, or any variety of shellfish. And it often brings a rock.

The sea otter is one of the few animals that have learned to use a tool, as you will see if you watch for a while. The otter floats on its back with both the rock and whatever food it brought up lying on its chest.

It then breaks the shell of its food by repeatedly hitting it on the rock. It’s sometimes easier to find a kelp bed that contains otters by listening for this shell cracking activity than it is by looking for furry heads.

An otter can crack open a sea urchin in about nine whacks, but the harder shell of a mussel takes an average of 35. Since the work is messy, the otter rolls over in water once or twice a minute to wash off its dining table. It uses its adaptable front paws to hold its rock and food in place as it turns.

This cleanliness during eating is carried over to a general concern about its coat. The sea otter doesn’t have the thick blubber that protects other marine mammals from the cold. Instead, its dense fur traps air bubbles that help to insulate the animal, and also help it to float. And since the otter floats so much of the time, constant grooming is a necessity. Without it, the otter would chill and drown.

Even a newborn otter can float, but surprisingly it has to learn to swim.
During its early life the young otter lives in close contact with its mother, but when she dives for food, she first wraps the baby in strands of kelp to keep it safe. In fact, even the adults wrap strands of seaweed around their bodies before going to sleep. The kelp field calms the action of the ocean water, and the kelp safety line keeps the animal from drifting away.

Although central California was the only southern spot where the sea otter survived last century’s hunting spree, the otter has been reintroduced near Seattle, Washington, and Port Orford, Oregon. And in California its range has expanded in both directions, reaching from above Santa Cruz to below San Luis Obispo.

If you don’t manage to stay in a campground that has sea otters nearby, here’s another surefire way of finding them. Drive along the coastline of central California (near Carmel or Monterey, for example) and look for someone set up on the bluff with a telescope on a tripod. Chances are they’ll be watching sea otters, and they will probably be glad to give you a look. Next time you get to the west coast, be sure to watch for sea otters; it’s something you really otter do.


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