The Sea Otter Savvy program was established in summer of 2015 as a result of collaborative efforts by Southern Sea Otter Research Alliance members from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Friends of the Sea Otter, and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). A panel of these advisors meets regularly to discuss strategies and upcoming projects. As we have grown and developed, Sea Otter Savvy has become a trusted source of sea otter information throughout California and beyond. Our community-based research and outreach program was recognized as a tax-exempt public benefit nonprofit organization under IRS code 501(c)(3) in 2020.
The US Fish & Wildlife Service, the agency tasked with the management and recovery of the southern sea otter, is currently focused on sea otter ecology, behavior, and risk in estuaries and has identified human-caused disturbance as a priority issue for the southern sea otter. Additionally, USFWS has listed outreach and community engagement as essential recovery actions in recovery plan. Learn more by reading the Southern Sea Otter 5-Year Review:Summary and Evaluation (See Factor B, Overutilization for Recreational Purposes) and the Final Revised Recovery Plan for the Southern Sea Otter (Recovery, section B.7)
The approach of these kayakers caused these sea otters to swim away, wasting vital energy. Photo by Gena BentallAs southern sea otters (the subspecies Enhydra lutris nereis) recolonize the coastal habitats from which they were nearly extirpated during the maritime fur trade of the 1800s, they increasingly come into contact with human activities. In harbors, estuaries, and other sheltered waters of the California coast, this charismatic species is a primary attraction for visitors and is also exposed incidentally to other human-related dangers, such as boat traffic, fishing line entanglement, and domestic animal interactions.
Among marine mammals, sea otters have unique characteristics that make them more vulnerable to the negative effects of human-caused disturbance. Lacking the blubber layer of other marine mammals, they rely on a dense fur coat and a hot-burning metabolism to maintain body temperature in cold ocean waters. Energy is at a premium, and they have none to waste on avoiding encroaching humans.
Recent research on the energy expenditures of reproductive female sea otters has shown that individuals in this stage are physiologically challenged, suggesting that repeated disturbance can be harmful to sea otters by depleting their critical energy reserves. In extreme cases, the additional stress caused by human disturbance may lead to pup abandonment or even death.
Wildlife tour operators, kayakers, photographers, and other marine recreationists often approach too closely, causing the repeated disturbance of sea otters throughout the day. Without access to information, individuals participating in marine recreation activities may have little understanding of wildlife behavior (such as cues to imminent disturbance), laws protecting marine mammals, or the negative impacts of human-caused disturbance on wildlife.
Sea otters are essential members of the North Pacific coastal communities. Their ecosysytem services are well documented and their presence can confer economic benefit to human communities. Sea Otter Savvy strives to better understand the effects of human disturbance on sea otters, and to share that knowledge in a way that inspires stewardship.
The goal of the Sea Otter Savvy program is to reduce sea otter disturbance by inspiring responsible viewing of wild sea otters. The program will accomplish this goal by engaging and educating the wildlife-viewing public, either directly or indirectly through operators of marine recreation and ecotourism businesses.
Sea Otter Savvy's objectives include (1) Reducing the frequency of disturbance to sea otters that results from the proximity and behavior of commercial and personal marine recreation and wildlife viewing activities; (2) Increasing community awareness about sea otters and foster community stewardship (3) Conducting and facilitating research that increases our scientific understanding of the impacts of human activities on sea otters.
Four major tasks are needed to fulfill the objectives:
- Identify the target audience, measure program effectiveness, and quantify the effects of disturbance on sea otters activity levels by establishing baseline and post-inception levels and mechanisms of sea otter disturbance
- Develop guidelines to assist the target audience with strategies for avoiding disturbance of sea otters
- Create and disseminate outreach content to provide comprehensive information to our target audience in order to create a deeper awareness of sea otter conservation issues.
- Build a public recognition system for organizations and individuals complying with and promoting disturbance-avoidance techniques and policies.
The Sea Otter Savvy program officially launched in August of 2015 and since then have been in the process of researching, developing, and disseminating outreach materials, establishing relationships with stakeholders, certifying local businesses, giving public presentations, recruiting and training volunteers, and collecting sea otter disturbance data in three central coast regions.
In the image to the right, the staff of Monterey Bay Kayaks, the first central California business certified under our Community Active Wildlife Stewards program, demonstrates their sea otter savvy by grouping a tour group for a sea otter talk at a respectful distance from a sea otter raft.
In spring and summer of 2016, we began distributing a waterproof kayak decal with a "Be Sea Otter Savvy" message to kayak rental shops. By positioning a sea otter savvy message prominantly within view of kayak and paddleboard paddlers, we hope to to keep them mindful of responsible practices after they paddle away from the beach or dock.
Our program offers free materials for educational purposes to:
- marine recreation and tourism-related businesses
The materials are geared towards assisting owners, teachers, and leaders in educating their customers, students, staff and members about the unique biology and natural history of sea otters as well as simple guidelines to help reduce their chances of unintentionally causing a disturbance to resting and other behaviors. Browse the slideshow below to see a sample of materials offered by Sea Otter Savvy.
Kayak adherent stickers are designed to be applied to rental kayaks in a place where they are visible to the paddler. These weather and UV resistant stickers offer simple guidelines to help paddlers avoid disturbance. The decals have been tested in the field and have been proven to stay attached to a typical rental kayak. Instructions for application can be found on our kayak sticker page.
Flyers & Posters
We have flyers and posters with guidelines for responsible sea otter viewing. You can request these or print out your own from our print ready PDFs. Businesses may also inquire about durable outdoor signage with this graphic.
Our popular "Respect the nap" stickers can be purchased in our shop or picked up for free if you visit us at a public event!
The distance recommendations illustrated on our "Sea Otters Need Space" postcards are derived from the Sea Otter Savvy Community Science team's long-term data set. These glossy postcards are available translated into Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, French, German, Hindi, and English. Contact us to request postcards or print your own.
Learn the basics of southern sea otter natural history with this quick reference guide. Be sure to check out our handy Quick Stats at the end!
Presentations by a sea otter expert
Presentations on sea otters and the importance of respectful sea otter viewing for your staff or as special programs for customers. Invite a sea otter expert to your next event!
IS your business dedicated to protecting and conserving wildlife? Apply to join the elite community members certified under our Community Active Wildlife Stewards program! Look for the "Certified Wildlife Steward" logo when booking your kayak or boat rental to be sure you are supporting a business practicing exemplary wildlife stewardship.
Browse our video content by visiting our Sea Otter Savvy YouTube channel! Got a sea otter video request? Just ask!
Request a supply of these colorful, waterproof guides for those exploring Elkhorn Slough by kayak or paddleboard. Each folding guide includes a map of Elkhorn Slough, a field guide to the most commonly encounterer species, and tips for reducing your impact on the wild residents and habitat. You can also pick them up at Moss Landing CAWS certified businesses.
Dive In at Morro Bay!
These waterproof guides offer maps of key dive spots in Morro Bay, a field guide to some of the bay's wild residents, and tips for reducing the impact of your diving adventure on wildlife and habitat. Visit San Luis Obispo dive shops for your free copy!
Keep an eye out for our free "Respect the Nap" stickers at coastal business and special events! Look for us at these Central California coast events:
- WhaleFest Monterey
- Earth Day Santa Cruz
- Moss Landing Street Fair
- The Ocean Fair in San Simeon
- Morro Bay Winterfest Paddle Parade
- And of course, Sea Otter Awareness Week!
Please contact us by email at for materials and more information.