Sea Otters!


IMG_8550The moment we’d been hoping for came as the fog parted and we were motoring up the main channel of Glacier Bay.   We’d just seen a group of frolicking Steller Sea Lions, but these were different.  They did dive, but otherwise looked like bits of flotsam.    Four hairy islands:  two hind legs, fore paws together at waist, and a head that pivots to look at you.   A sea otter moves on the surface of the water on its back.

On Boxing Day when we were at the Vancouver Aquarium in the snow, the highlight was watching the sea otters, so smart and playful.    I held my first pelt in April, when Mini and I visited the Columbia Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon.  At the wonderful trapping exhibit at the museum at Wrangell, I closed my eyes and felt each of the dozen or so pelts on display for the most luxuriant.  The sea otter wins hand down; mink and ermine are nice to the touch but just not the same.  In fact, Lynn Schooler, in The Blue Bear, says that the former pelts have between 20 and 50 thousand hairs per square inch while the sea otter has an impossible sounding million.  

The fad for this fabulous fur that nearly wiped out the sea otter within a hundred years appears to have had an inauspicious start.  Vitus Bering, the Danish captain in the employ of Peter the Great who demonstrated that Alaska and Siberia were on different continents and gave his name to the strait between them, ended his career and life shipwrecked on a small island.  According to Lynn Schooler. some of his crew survived the winter of 1741-42 by clubbing sea otters, consuming their meat, and wrapping themselves in the pelts.  When finally rescued, they showed up in Saint Petersburg wearing the otter cloaks that set off the frenzy for fur.  By the time Alaska was sold off to the Americans in 1867 the sea otter had become very rare.

By 1911 sea otters had been officially protected.  When the population was threatened the 1960s with nuclear testing on the Aleutian Island of Amchitka, several hundred otters were brought to Southeastern Alaska.  Then in the 1990s their numbers in the Aleutians dropped periously low, likely due to encounters with a pod of transient, or red meat eating, orcas.  Given the role of sea otters in the ecosystem, this decline is of concern.   As Lynn Schooler puts it (p201): 

Sea otters eat a lot of sea urchins, which in turn eat a lot of kelp, which provides critical habitat to dozens of species of fish.  Without otters to keep them in check, urchin populations can explode, denuding vast shorelines of kelp.  Without kelp there are fewer fish, and therefore less prey available to feed the Aleutian chain’s bald eagles.  Between sea and sky, the tendrils of disruption probably reach much farther than we can imagine, and it is not difficult to envision the entire ecosystem eventually slipping off its tracks.  

While sea otters still prefer the open seas of the Gulf of Alaska they have  recently been visiting Glacier Bay.  After seeing a number of them there, we passed one up close sailing back to Hoonah across Icy Strait.

 Like us, sea otters are omnivorous, with both flat grinders and more pointed teeth for tearing.   And they are charming, nothing like their weaselly, carnivorous cousins the martens and river otters.  (Our European friend, Mini, encountered her first-ever river otter on the dock where Aurora was moored in Port Hadlock in April.  Mistaking it for an unbelievably large rat, she recoiled in sudden fright, pulling a muscle in her back.)  

Best of all sea otters are smart, using tools and fashioning protective clothing.  Sound preposterous?   Here’s what the  authors of the indispensable and authoritative The Nature of Southeast Alaska say:    In feeding, otters may carry a rock on their chest, to use as an anvil to smash urchins and other hard-shell prey.   During storms, otters ride out the surf by wrapping a strip of kelp around their middles for stability. 


3 Responses to “Sea Otters!”

  1. 1 otterheather August 4, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Great blog! Aren’t they wonderful creatures. The Otter Project is a non-profit based n Monterey CA dealing with the recovery of the species. For more information visit our website-, our blog- Sea Otter Scoop, become a fan on our facebook page and cause, or follow us on twitter (@theotterproject).
    Thanks for your passion and knowledge about this species!
    cheers- heather cauldwell

  2. 2 otterheather August 4, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    I misspelled our web address in the previous comment – sorry. It is (makes much more sense!)
    -heather cauldwell

    • 3 Carol McCreary August 6, 2009 at 3:24 pm

      Thanks, Heather. The Otter Project website has really good information. Good on tool use. And fur density of TWO million hairs per square inch! Wow.

      Congratulations on your effective advocacy which led to the passage in the House of the Sea Otter Research and Recovery Act last week. I wasn’t aware of the migrations of the Southern Sea Otter.

      I’ve signed up for The Otter Project newsletter, am following on Twitter and really like the official blog, The Sea Otter Scoop

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