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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

Heather Barrett

From intern to graduate student to Sea Otter Savvy Science Communications Director

hbarrett otter tracking 400x300

My interests in ecology began at a young age as I interned with the Lawrence Hall of Science and Berkeley Botanical Garden, teaching youth biology classes. I took a marine focus as a student at UC Santa Cruz where I joined the Sea Otter Research and Conservation program (SORAC), partnering with UCSC, US Geological Service, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. After receiving my Bachelor of Science in Ecology and Evolution, I continued with SORAC and pursued a career with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. For six years I performed field-work and developed the photography catalogue for the long-term diversity database of Northern California. During this time I was fortunate to live and work abroad. I assisted with a variety of research programs including whale shark photo identification in Bahia de los Angeles, Mexico, and participate in Wildland Studies Program of CSU Monterey Bay throughout the country of Belize. I am thrilled to be a recent graduate of Dr. Gitte McDonald’s marine vertebrate ecology lab at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, where I investigated the energetic cost of human disturbance to sea otters in Monterey Bay.


Human disturbance to wildlife is a growing concern in conservation policy and management (Benham 2006; Curland 1997). As outdoor recreation increases there is a consequent rise in human-wildlife encounters. Thus, quantifying the effects of anthropogenic (human induced) disturbance is of interest to wildlife management agencies. Past studies focused on disturbance duration and behavioral responses (Benham 2006; Curland 1997). However, linking the behavioral response to the energetic cost of the response is the next step. This pairing could further our understanding of the true cost of the disturbance, and provide sound scientific basis for management. This is especially important when assessing the physiological cost of disturbance to high-risk populations and ecologically significant species, such as the southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis). The project aims to use activity budgets and metabolic rates to provide a physiological assessment of anthropogenic disturbance on sea otters.

The project had three main objectives:

  • Determine the frequency and severity of sea otter disturbance and consequent activity change.
  • Estimate the energetic cost of anthropogenic disturbance to sea otters and quantify how the cost varies by sex, reproductive status, and type of disturbance.
  • Provide agencies with a quantifiable minimum disturbance distance to inform management and policy decisions.

Watch a talk by Heather about her research:


Read her completed thesis: The Energetic Cost of Anthropogenic Disturbance on the Southern Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris nereis)

See some of Heather's results in her poster from the 4th Annual California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium: 

research heather barrett poster small

PDF file: Investigating human disturbance to sea otters (Enhydra lutris) in Monterey Bay


Benham, D. (2006). A Multidisciplinary Approach to Investigating and Managing the Disturbance of Southern Sea Otters ( Enhydra lutris nereis ) by Recreational Activities. University of Nottingham.

Curland, J. M. (1997). Effects of disturbance on sea otters (Enhydra lutris) near Monterey, California. San Jose State University through Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.