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
August 01, 2003
Shelley Metcalf

Along busy Cannery Row, a quiet group gathers in a clearing by theMonterey Plaza Hotel & Spa. Out in the chilly bay, a Californiasea otter is dealing with the demands of motherhood, and the scenepromises a reality show at its best.

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

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

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

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

"These are wild animals, and they deserve a chance for releaseback to their world," says Michelle Staedler, SORAC's researchcoordinator. "But sometimes captivity is the only solution." Inpractice sessions, Mae couldn't find her own food, so she'saquarium-bound. Maggie and Rosa easily snagged delicacies, butmonitoring after their release showed them fraternizing withkayakers, even climbing aboard. Such escapades cut short the girls'parole.

Michelle says otters in rehab remain backstage; the public seesonly those who can't return to sea. Also, per the 1972 MarineMammal Protection Act, California sea otters cannot be captured forexhibition purposes. Rescued creatures unable to survive in naturemake up the U.S. aquarium population.

Blubberless mammals, they constantly groom themselves and theirpups. Their technique traps air bubbles and insulates the fur-up to1 million hairs per square inch-to retain warmth.

To fuel a high-energy lifestyle, otters consume the equivalentof about 25 percent of their body weight per day. Using stones,shells, and other handy tools, they "thwack, thwack, thwack" tocrack open crabs, abalone, mussels, and other victuals. Whilediving, they store the tools in their coat "pockets"-flaps of skinbeneath each front leg. Laying prey across their tabletop chestsand tapping their way into the morsels, otters are inspiring forsure.

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

Well, sea otters need all the survival instincts they canmuster. Three Pacific species-California/Southern, Russian, andAleutian/Alaskan-thrived for thousands of years from Mexico toJapan. Then traders discovered this luxurious fur source in themid-1700s. By the early 1900s, hunters rendered the mammals nearlyextinct.

Along the Central California coast, only an estimated 50 ottersremained, but when no longer hunted for its fur, the species beganrebounding 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 counttotaled 2,505.

Still, that marks a 17 percent increase since 2002 and a shiftfrom 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 thatwith more births will be more deaths, because of infectiousdiseases.

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

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

All in all, that healthy pup observed crawling over hishardworking mom out in Monterey Bay is lucky to be here. The animalfaces a challenging future, which interconnects with prospects forhumans. Tom says, "They indicate the health of our life-givingocean and our relationship to it." Fortunately, it's easy for manypeople to identify with otters and to want their survival. "They'reambassadors of the ocean," says Michelle, "and poster kids forthemselves."