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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach


Boating and Sea Otters: No Wake for Otters' Sake


Boaters departing Moss Landing Harbor early on the opening day of salmon season navigate carefully past a large group of sea otters near the jetty.

By Colleen Young and Gena Bentall

As sport and commercial fishing seasons come and go, speeding boats could put threatened marine mammals in harm’s way

From January 2003 to December 2017, 49 sea otters were recovered with trauma consistent with impact from a boat hull or propeller.  The majority of these sea otters were recovered in Monterey Bay and Estero Bay during spring to late summer (Figure 1).  April and July had the greatest occurrence of boat strike cases, which corresponds with increased vessel traffic, likely associated with the opening of recreational salmon (April) and favorable summer boating conditions (July). 

boat figure1Figure 1 Number of Southern sea otters with trauma consistent with impact from a boat hull or propeller, by month and year, January 2003-December 2017. Data courtesy of USGS and CDFW.

Anglers are often in a hurry to head out as recreational fishing seasons open. But with large numbers of sea otters living in or near harbor areas along the central California coast, wildlife experts are concerned about accidental deaths of otters caused by boats speeding out to sea. Considering the proximity of boaters and sea otters in harbors and bays, boat strikes are relatively uncommon. Most central coast boaters are conscientious and aware of local wildlife, following both boating and wildlife safety practices. Unfortunately for sea otters, it only takes one speeding or inattentive boater to cause devastating, often fatal injury.

“We all benefit from the amazing natural bounty off our coastline, but we’re also responsible for protecting it. It takes just a few extra seconds to slow down when traveling between the harbor and the open ocean, but it could mean the difference between life and death for a sea otter in the area.” — Lilian Carswell, Southern Sea Otter Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

boat seaotter graphicForaging sea otters are at greatest risk for boat strike. Sea otters dive for food in the harbor and slough channels and may surface unexpectedly near water craft—it is the boater’s responsibility to avoid contact.  Here are tips to help boaters avoid collisions with sea otters and other wildlife:

  • Boaters should keep an eye out for otters diving or surfacing from dives when passing between the jetties while entering or exiting the harbor. Have a designated wildlife spotter keeping watch!
  • Travel at safe speeds that enable avoidance of collisions with any wildlife using the harbor and channel. Respect “no wake” zones. Don’t assume that a sea otter will be able to get out of the way in time.

Resting sea otters are also at risk! Boaters entering or exiting harbors will often encounter sea otters resting alone or in groups inside the harbor.  When the harbor is busy, resting otters may be subjected to repeated disturbance, causing them to swim away or dive to avoid any water-craft approaching too closely. Chronic disturbance to resting sea otters can waste energy, which is especially detrimental to sea otters, which don’t store energy in the form of a blubber layer like other marine mammals. Conserving energy is important for all sea otters but is particularly critical for mothers raising pups.

Tips for avoiding disturbance to resting sea otters:

  • Allow plenty of space between your boat and sea otters. We recommend a distance equivalent to at least 5 lengths of your boat.
  • Passing by parallel is less threatening to sea otters than a direct approach, and will ensure most boaters prevent disturbance, and vessel strikes, to resting rafts of otters.
  • When passing near otters in any kind of vessel, watch for an alert behavior—head raised and looking at you—the otter is warning you that you are too close and should adjust your course to avoid disturbance.
  • Know guidelines for wildlife viewing before you go! Observe and follow posted guidelines at harbors and other marine recreation access points. Resources:

Sea Otter Savvy GuidelinesNOAA Fisheries Marine Life Viewing GuidelinesSeabird Protection NetworkThe Marine Mammal Center, Morro Bay Boater Resource Guide

The central California coast offers habitat ideal for both sea otters and human recreation. Sea otter deaths from boat strikes – while unintentional – are easily preventable through increased boater attentiveness and by practicing safe boating.   Sea Otter Savvy joins the Monterey Bay Aquarium, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service, City of Morro Bay Harbor Department, and the  Moss Landing, and Monterey Harbor Districts in reminding recreational anglers and boaters to safeguard sea otters and other marine mammals and birds by slowing down in harbors. Observe “no-wake zones” so both wildlife and humans can safely enjoy our coastal waters. Slower boats also have a better chance of observing natural sea otter behaviors; a real treat for those with the patience and respect to observe these amazing critters at a reduced speed and an appropriate distance.

Anthropogenic (human-caused) sources of sea otter mortality include gun shots, entanglement, entrapment, and boat strikes.  Although these causes of mortality are relatively uncommon (see the CDFW web page), this category is the most preventable source of sea otter deaths in California. For those already observing wildlife safe boating practices—well done! Don't be afraid to remind others to follow your example. 

What else can you do to help? Spread the word on social media, or on your website! Download, print and distribute our No Wake, For Otters' Sake flyer.

Colleen Young is an sea otter biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Viewing Guidelines

pdfGuidelines for responsible sea otter viewing

There are simple guidelines marine recreationists can follow to avoid disturbing sea otters. Practice these yourself, and encourage others to do the same!

Distance infographic resizeGuidelines for distance for paddlers

Important note for boaters: The larger the boat, the more space you should keep between you and resting sea otters. The "5 length rule" applies, but scale it up for your boat's dimensions. Sail and power boats of any size should never approach closer than 100 feet, equivalent to 2.5 school buses! See more tips for boaters.

Avoiding direct interactions between sea otters, humans and pets

otter climb on kayakIf a sea otter approaches your kayak, paddle away!Habituated sea otters may try to interact with humans by climbing on kayaks. In scenarios like this, both humans and sea otters are at risk, and every attempt should be made to prevent physical interaction

  • Recognize that incidents involving direct contact between a sea otter and you or your pet are very dangerous.

  • If a sea otter approaches you while you are paddling a small craft or on shore, paddle away to avoid direct contact.

  • If a sea otter attempts to climb on your watercraft, use your paddle or other object to block access and/or push the sea otter off of your craft. While sea otters are protected by federal laws, a gentle nudge with your paddle to a sea otter attempting to climb aboard  is preferable as a means to protect human and sea otter from harm

  • If a member of your party is being approached by a habituated sea otter, render assistance in keeping the sea otter off their kayak.

  • Do not attempt to touch or pet the sea otter or pause to take pictures.

  • Do not allow your dog to chase, harass, or interact with a sea otter. A sea otter is capable of harming and even killing your pet.

  • Be a good sea otter steward off the water: Recognize videos and photos of habituated behavior may promote similar inappropriate and dangerous interactions with wildlife in the future. Use care when you share!

  • Your behavior can help protect and save sea otters!



What else can you do to help?

responsible kayaker

  • Practice behavior that is respectful to sea otters and all wildlife when sharing their space.
  • Encourage others to think about the needs and well‐being of sea otters when they are viewing them—be a sea otter savvy role model!
  • Be proficient at handling and maneuvering your watercraft, whatever type or size of craft you are operating. First time kayaking? Ask for instruction on how to turn and stop skillfully before launching. It's safer for you and it's safer for wildlife!

Most people love sea otters and do not wish them harm. Armed with a little information, we can share the coastal environment respectfully and peacefully with sea otters! Understanding the needs of sea otters is most important to help prevent disturbance, but don't forget, sea otters are protected from harassment by two federal laws, state law and a number of local laws and regulations. Harassment and disturbance of them, even when unintentional, violates the law!