Intelligent, cute and sometimes playful — all of these words accurately describe the sea otter. Through the decline of their population in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to its present recovery, sea otters have fascinated scientists and non-scientists alike, while inspiring groups and governments everywhere to work toward saving them from poachers.
Sea otters are mammals that spend nearly all of their lives in the ocean. These creatures look very much like river otters and have brown or reddish brown hair as well as long hind legs with webbed paws to aid their swimming. The forelegs of a sea otter are shorter and have retractable claws that are useful for defense and eating. It is not unusual to hear people exclaim, “He is so cute,” when they see an otter at play in the water.
As already noted, sea otters rarely leave the oceans, and they even give birth and sleep in the water. They like to spend their time in beds of kelp because that is where they find most of their food. Interestingly, sea otters will sleep in groups of their own sex in the water, in groups of all males or all females called rafts. They sleep on top of the kelp, wrapping themselves with some of the kelp to keep from drifting away. This use of kelp is but one of the several ways in which sea otters make use of tools, which is a rarity for creatures other than human beings. Other tools sea otters will use are rocks, which they pound against shellfish to break the shell and release the meat for which they are searching. Among the creatures that they like to eat and which they find in their beds of kelp are snails, mussels, sea urchins, and abalone — perhaps their favorite treat of all. Sea otters will also feast upon starfish, crabs, and other such animals when they have the opportunity.
Whales and other marine mammals depend on a layer of blubber to keep themselves warm in the ocean, but sea otters rely entirely on air bubbles that are trapped in their dense fur to keep them warm and able to float. They will frequently clean themselves to preserve their coats’ ability to trap these air bubbles.
Originally, the sea otters lived almost entirely in the northern arctic regions of the Pacific Ocean, especially around the shores of Alaska. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sea otters were a favorite target of hunters and poachers because their fur pelts were desirable for coats and other clothing. Populations of tens of thousands of sea otters were reduced to the mere hundreds, but conservation efforts began in earnest in the twentieth century, and the number of sea otters in the world has slowly increased. Attempts to relocate portions of the sea otter population to the waters off the shore of Washington, Oregon, and California have been moderately successful in preserving the sea otter for its reintroduction to its native arctic waters. Nevertheless, conservation groups remain vigilant so as to help the sea otter population get back to pre-hunting levels.
Today human beings and killer whales are the sea otter’s most common enemies, the former a danger largely on account of pollution and oil spills. Our individual efforts to avoid polluting the earth will go a long way towards preserving the sea otter.
• A Raft of Sea Otters — informative lesson plan to teach elementary school classes about sea otters
• California Sea Otter Population Dynamics — research project involving the population levels of sea otters in California
• Cat Parasites and Sea Otters — how a housecat parasite is hurting sea otters in California
• Enhydra Lutris: The Sea Otter — informative page on the sea otter
• Friends of the Sea Otter — a page on the sea otter from a group dedicated to its preservation
• Kids Do Ecology: The Sea Otter — kid-friendly educational page on the sea otter
• The Sea Otter — article on sea otters from the University of Minnesota
• Sea Otter Adaptation — the biological adaptations that help sea otters survive in their habitats
• Sea Otter Crash — 2002 radio interview transcript on the decline of sea otters in Alaska
• Sea Otter Deaths Analyzed — article from the University of California on the deaths of sea otters in the state
• Sea Otter Facts — National Geographic’s page on sea otters
• Sea Otter Mystery — explains the health of the arctic sea otter population relative to the population of sea otters in California
• Sea Otters from the Arctic Studies Center — Smithsonian Museum article on sea otters
• Vanishing Sea Otters — describes the sad effect of whaling on the sea otter population
• Zonal Management and Sea Otters — how relocating sea otters has affected the sea farming industry in California