Wild and Winsome Sea Otters

Mother Nature must have had a grand time designing the clever California sea otter. Head for Monterey Bay to take in this creature's playful antics--while you still can.
By Susan Haynes
Along busy Cannery Row, a quiet group gathers in a clearing by the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa. Out in the chilly bay, a California sea otter is dealing with the demands of motherhood, and the scene promises a reality show at its best.

Set up for the annual meeting of the nearby Friends of the Sea Otter (FSO), a 250-millimeter Questar spotting scope hones in: Belly up, the 50ish-pound adult lies tootsie-rolled in a ribbon of kelp, and she's attempting a nap. But her roly-poly pup scurries about, on a frisky tour of her body. A dozen or so FSO members take turns at three different scopes.

Mama otter stirs, and her nimble-fingered forepaws massage the babe's rump. "She's stimulating him to nurse," says FSO education director Tom Kieckhefer. "She wants him to get fat, grow up, and get outta there."

The remaining habitat for Enhydra lutris nereis-the California (a.k.a. Southern) sea otter-occupies about 250 miles of the state's central coastline. Within this stretch, Monterey Bay makes the best destination for travelers with a yen for sea otters. Year-round, from the nearby coves of Point Lobos to Moss Landing's Elkhorn Slough, dozens of vantage points afford easy access for witnessing these creatures in the wild.

For face-to-face observation, catch the antics of Rosa (4), Maggie (2 1/2), and Mae (2) at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Its renowned Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) program has rescued more than 260 stranded otters. While many were unable to survive and some remain in rehab, more than 50 have been successfully returned to their natural habitat.

"These are wild animals, and they deserve a chance for release back to their world," says Michelle Staedler, SORAC's research coordinator. "But sometimes captivity is the only solution." In practice sessions, Mae couldn't find her own food, so she's aquarium-bound. Maggie and Rosa easily snagged delicacies, but monitoring after their release showed them fraternizing with kayakers, even climbing aboard. Such escapades cut short the girls' parole.

Michelle says otters in rehab remain backstage; the public sees only those who can't return to sea. Also, per the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, California sea otters cannot be captured for exhibition purposes. Rescued creatures unable to survive in nature make up the U.S. aquarium population.

Blubberless mammals, they constantly groom themselves and their pups. Their technique traps air bubbles and insulates the fur-up to 1 million hairs per square inch-to retain warmth.

To fuel a high-energy lifestyle, otters consume the equivalent of about 25 percent of their body weight per day. Using stones, shells, and other handy tools, they "thwack, thwack, thwack" to crack open crabs, abalone, mussels, and other victuals. While diving, they store the tools in their coat "pockets"-flaps of skin beneath each front leg. Laying prey across their tabletop chests and tapping their way into the morsels, otters are inspiring for sure.

"But they're not the sweet, cuddly things you think they are," says lifetime FSO member and naturalist photographer Lee Worthington. "A male spotting a female feeding an urchin or a clam to her pup will take the baby as a hostage to get some of the food."

Well, sea otters need all the survival instincts they can muster. Three Pacific species-California/Southern, Russian, and Aleutian/Alaskan-thrived for thousands of years from Mexico to Japan. Then traders discovered this luxurious fur source in the mid-1700s. By the early 1900s, hunters rendered the mammals nearly extinct.

Along the Central California coast, only an estimated 50 otters remained, but when no longer hunted for its fur, the species began rebounding at about five percent a year. Had that rate continued, today nearly 3,500 California sea otters would be frolicking here. Instead, in 1995, decline set in, and this spring's annual count totaled 2,505.

Still, that marks a 17 percent increase since 2002 and a shift from the downward trend. "That's good news," says Dr. David Jessup, senior wildlife veterinarian at California's Department of Fish & Game. However, David, Tom, and other otter experts agree that with more births will be more deaths, because of infectious diseases.

Current thinking blames four organisms that enter the water via runoff, sewage, and drainage. One, equally dangerous to pregnant women and auto-immune patients, leeches out of cat litter flushed by humans. Public education can curb that practice, David notes. But other issues require coordination among federal, state, and local groups, as well as the public, he says.

Also, potential oil spills seriously threaten sea otters. A state vs. federal lawsuit now focuses on 36 offshore-California leases extended beyond their 1999 expiration date.

All in all, that healthy pup observed crawling over his hardworking mom out in Monterey Bay is lucky to be here. The animal faces a challenging future, which interconnects with prospects for humans. Tom says, "They indicate the health of our life-giving ocean and our relationship to it." Fortunately, it's easy for many people to identify with otters and to want their survival. "They're ambassadors of the ocean," says Michelle, "and poster kids for themselves."