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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

Sea Otters on the Island of Blue Dolphins, Part 4

Read the first entries in this series, Sea Otters on the Island of the Blue Dolphins 1, 2 and 3 

 Sea otter scientists observe foraging sea otters on the teaming shores of San Nicolas Island, CA. Photo by G. Bentall

My eye is pressed to the rubber ring on the eyepiece of a telescope. I am waiting for a sea otter, one of 150 or so now living in the waters around San Nicolas Island, to surface from a foraging dive. My footing is weathered sandstone and my company, at the sea’s edge, a raucous, redolent spectacle of elephant seals, sea lions, cormorants, and brown pelicans fills my ears and nose. But it’s one sea otter—and the ring of bubbles where I expect her to surface— that holds my attention.

For a sea otter scientist making real-time foraging observations of wild sea otters on a remote island, larger-sized prey are always appreciated and are sometimes the source of jubilation. Large prey—big or bigger than the width of three sea otter paws (15 cm)—are easier to see, count and, most importantly, identify. But I venture most spotters would admit, whatever the species, large prey are a thrill to see as a sea otter first breaks the surface.

A foraging sea otter with a giant rock scallop meal (photographer unknown)So on this day on a rocky shore of San Nicolas Island—even though over twenty years having elapsed since my first observations of sea otter foraging—my awe is still fresh and bright when she surfaces with a giant bivalve between her paws. It is roughly the size of her head and looks every bit like an algae-crusted rock to the untrained eye. She hefts the closed shell and slams it down on a large, smooth rock on her belly. While cryptic in appearance, the large size, texture, and heft (as observers we can guess this by her effort in lifting and cracking it) are unmistakable. This is a giant rock scallop, Crassadoma giganteus, a massive bivalve that cements its right (lower) valve to the substrate as an adult. These giant scallops are aptly named as they can grow to a diameter of 25 centimeters. She will likely have found this living rock by probing crevices with her sensitive paws and whiskers. Once located these scallops (like their cousins the abalone) must be dislodged but, unlike abalone, they require more work at the surface before a meal is to be enjoyed.

sni 4 crassA living giant rock scallop (Crassadoma giganteus) attached to rock substrate. As I watch this female sea otter work to breach the shell, I use her paws to estimate the size of this prey and record this as a 4c—every bit of four “paw-widths” or 20 centimeters. Once opened, this is a substantial meal for her, and she gives me a flash of the white porcelain-like interior of the shell as she cleans away the last tidbits. Our data sheet shows that it has taken her six dives to dislodge and retrieve this scallop, and ten minutes to crack, open and eat it, after which she immediately dives to hunt for another. The hunger of sea otters is endless. 

This prey observation was exciting for reasons beyond the spectacle of it. In the days of my graduate research on the island back in 2003 and 2004 San Nic’s sea otters (affectionately, SNotters) retrieved a single species—specifically the red urchin, Mesocentrotus franciscanus—59% of their foraging dives and were part of a study of sea otter behavioral ecology that defined our understanding of the adaptability of sea otters to changing availability of their prey (link to PNAS paper). Sea otters were sparse at San Nic then and provided an opportunity for comparison to the much more crowded and long-established sea otters of the central California coast. One of their most prominent features in this study, was the lack of diversity in their diet, and this has become an earmark of a sea otter population living well below the habitat’s carrying capacity. Long-term research here provides an exciting opportunity to witness dietary diversification (OK, that’s jargon: different types and frequency of prey) as this insular population grows and adapts.

sni report fig6 croppedRelative sea otter density during 3 years of fall and spring surveys taken around San Nicolas Island, California, from A, 2014 through 2016; and B, 2017 through 2019. Relative densities were spatially modeled using kernel density methods on the cumulative sea otters counted per hectare across six surveys in each comparison period. Kelp canopy images taken during the fall of the 3 respective years are merged and displayed for reference. (Yee et al. 2020)The what, when, and how many of giant rock scallop prey are notable, but so too is the where. After decades of holding steady at the southwest end and south shore of the island, sea otters have begun to explore and settle new locations (Yee et al. 2020). As I stood upon this same rock on the island’s east end back in 2004, I often wished to see a raft of grizzled faces. Today my forager is one among forty or so resting, grooming, and foraging here. It inspires me in a way that appeases my disappointment over the stalled range expansion on California’s mainland (USGS Sothern Sea Otter Census Report 2019).

During three days spent perched here, I have observed only a handful of the red urchin prey once so common. At this new location the otters surprise me with lots of giant rock scallops, wavy turban snails, and even abalone. Also surprising is the frequency of their use of the rock tool during these foraging bouts, a behavior once not especially common for here compared to other California population (see Fujii et al. 2015). As our team scans the east end kelp with binoculars, it seems every other forager is banging away on a rock anvil.

Change and adaptation—whatever the time scale— are the essence of ecology and evolution. It is a privilege to witness the process unfolding in my lifetime, the island’s community rebuilding after an extinction like a microcosm of the history of the sea otter on a global scale. San Nicolas Island resonates with such stories—the fall and rise of the elephant seal, abalone, island fox, the tragic stories of Juana Maria and her Nicoleño family and ancestors. To stand on a rocky bluff watching a hungry sea otter contend with a scallop’s resistance to being eaten, is to be a character in the progression of all their stories.

Be a sea otter foraging scientist and watch this video by Marge Brigadier!

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Finding Our Environmental Identity

An overview of the 7th California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium

by Gena Bentall

On November 9th and 10th of 2021, people from across the United States—and even the planet—gathered to learn and share information about human-caused disturbance to coastal wildlife and be introduced to some of the innovative new strategies to mitigate it. As the world becomes increasingly aware of the ubiquity and costs of human disturbance to wildlife, mitigation measures have evolved and diversified. One of the objectives of this symposium is to showcase ideas and campaigns – successful or otherwise – to inspire creativity and strive for effectiveness, and this year’s event featured an agenda packed with impassioned and creative people and projects seeking to embody and inspire stewardship.

Co-organizer Cara O’Brien from California State Parks started out the morning leading a word cloud activity that queried attendees about wildlife disturbance witnessed in their everyday life (see results below). Since the earliest inception days of the Sea Otter Savvy program, there has been a shift in my awareness. As a sea otter biologist, I was acutely aware of human disturbance to sea otters – I could not avoid seeing it everyday and it impacted my work. In the ensuing years I’ve been on my own journey of awareness and now notice the disturbance I and others cause, not just to sea otters, but for the birds, reptiles, invertebrates, and even plants that coexist in my environment—my neighborhood.

symposium7 poll screenshot

Speaker Claudia Pineda Tibbs of Latino Outdoors, drew us in to that inclusive sense of place, home, and family in their talk about community representation in the outdoors and parks. Of all the concepts covered on the symposium’s first day, Claudia’s discussion of the relevance of each person’s “environmental identity” to their actions within and towards their environment, rang out as a clarion call to draw people from all communities to experience, love, and protect nature. How do you define your environmental identity? How does that identity influence your actions? Community wildlife stewardship begins with that kind of self-awareness in every person entering outdoor spaces.

Lisa Duba of Gigantic Idea Studio, introduced the first materials from the collaborative Respect Wildlife project and shared lessons learned from the launch of a series of humorous memes on the project’s new social media platforms. Respect Wildlife is one of two campaigns showcased on day 1 that offer copyright-free digital media packets that anyone can access, download, and share! Here's the Respect Wildlife media kit. Follow and tag @respectwildlifeproject on Instagram and Facebook! Grace Bottitta-Williamson also shared NOAA Sanctuary’s wonderful “Recreate Responsibly” campaign, that also has a copyright-free media packet to offer.

There were many inspiring stories of stewardship, ranging from the deep cultural and environmental ecology of the Tolowa Dee-ni to the day to day balancing of human activities and wildlife protection by the Morro Bay Harbor Department. From the turquoise waters of Indonesia, Dr. Maulita Sari Hani talked about her community’s efforts to make tourism safer for manta rays. Did you hear news about the disruption to elegant terns nesting at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Orange County? Melissa Loebl gave the inside story of that and other challenges she has faced in her first year overseeing one of the largest and most diverse ecosystems in Southern California. Spoiler: the terns found a new, rather awkward place to nest!

To reinforce our “give wildlife space” ethic, Dr. Mike Murray from the Monterey Bay Aquarium ticked down his list of zoonotic diseases (diseases and infections that are naturally transmitted between vertebrate animals and humans) in his talk, “Can marine mammals make me sick?  Marine mammals and zoonotic disease”. Take home message: DO NOT be tempted to kiss a sea lion. Also on the science and physiology front, we were surprised to learn from Dr. Mark Ditmer of the U.S. Forest Service how good bears are at hiding their stress.

Finishing up day 1, keynote speaker Dr. Kirsten Leong from NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center shared her insight on the importance of skills and disciplinary knowledge from fields such as human social psychology, communication, and interpretation to any wildlife protection strategy. Dr. Leong offered a couple of relevant quotes to illustrate this point (see below).

Image courtesy K. Leong, NOAA FisheriesImage courtesy K. Leong, NOAA Fisheries

The day 2 workshops were well attended this year, offering tips for interpretation of wildlife issues during the turbulent months of the pandemic. The master of nature interpretation, Jim Covel, also offered sage self-care advice to keep yourself and your messaging positive.  An all-star panel of social media leaders had advice and fielded questions from those bravely navigating the developing frontier of social media with wildlife conservation messaging.

At the end of the day, I felt encouraged and inspired, not only by our speakers and workshop hosts, but by the participation and dedication of attendees. We are all in this together, defining our environmental identity, seeking our “One Thing” (watch video below) and merging with our neighbors’ into a community wave of change.

Look for all of the talks and workshops from the 7th CA Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium coming soon on the Sea Otter Savvy YouTube channel. Be sure to subscribe!

Abstracts of symposium talks are available here.

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Carve a Sea Otter Savvy Jack-o-Lantern!

 

These spooky otters see you! Who are some of the scariest monsters in the sea otter's world? Us! 

Have fun and make your own spooky sea otter pumpkin with our Spooky Sea Otter Pumkin Carving Template

Share all of your spooky sea otter pumpkins with us  @seaottersavvy on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Make, share, and tag us in your otter pumpkin carving video or post and win a "Respect the nap" sticker! 

Download and print the Spooky Sea Otter template here, and follow the instructions below. See more We Were Here artwork by our own Heather Barrett and learn about the past, present, and future recovery of sea otters on our We Were Here page

Note: this template is challenging, but you can encourage young ones to draw, color in, or paint their pumpkin. You can also find a less advanced carving template with our friends at The Marine Mammal Center. Or, create your own design!

Have a savvy Halloween!

pumpkin 1Step 1: Print out the image to your preferred sizing (large pumpkin recommended) and gather your carving tools (kits can be found and most grocery stores).

Step 2: Prep your pumpkin (cut the top and scoop out the insides).

 

 

pumpkin 2Step 3: Cut the corners of the template and tape to your pumpkin, adjusting accordingly as it may not lay perfectly. 

Step 4: Poke holes through the template into the pumkin with a nail or pick, following the template.

pumpkin 3

 

 

Step 5: Use your carving knife and follow along connecting the dots where you have punched through.

Step 6: Carefully remove the sections colored in light grey.

pumpkin 4

 

For the grey lines on the pup’s face, whiskers, and side – these are optional – you can choose to cut through, or you can scrape off just enough to create the detail, or you can draw/paint them on. 

Trick or Treat! 

 

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Sea Otter Awareness Week 2021

Photo by Jeff & Wendy Photography

Photo of a mother sea otter wrapped in kelp with her pup by Jeff & Wendy Photography.

Annually, throughout the last week of September, we celebrate sea otters during Sea Otter Awareness Week. We encourage zoological and educational institutions, governmental agencies and communities to plan and undertake events that highlight sea otters. These activities include sharing stories, disseminating science and generating media that inspire a deeper awareness of these unique marine mammals, their ecological importance and the many challenges they face.

This year's Sea Otter Awareness Week's theme, Ecosystem Mosaic, follows the idea of the sea otter’s ecosystem as a mosaic of tiny parts in which the removal of key elements or damage to the system’s structure renders the ecological picture incomplete. 

SOAW fullLogo design by Heather BarrettThe Ecosystem Mosaic theme was inspired by groundbreaking research published by a collaborative of scientists from University of California Santa Cruz, the Western Ecological Research Center of the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2021. This large-scale study examined ecosystem complexity revealed by the catastrophic loss of an important kelp forest predator -- the sunflower star. The sudden shift in the web of organisms uncovered new insights into the functional role of sea ottes in California kelp ecosystems. Dr. Joshua Smith, the lead author of this study, will be a featured speaker leading off the week's exciting agenda of events.

A mosaic relies on each piece of tile to contribute to a complete image. Similarly, a thousand tiny elements must coexist to form an ecosystem. Removing pieces from a mosaic equates to losing vital components of an ecosystem. As more parts are removed, the value of the art or the ecosystem diminishes.

Sea Otter Viewing Stations

Throughout Sea Otter Awareness Week 2021 (September 19-25) you can meet volunteers from SeaLife Stewards, Sea Otter Savvy, California State Parks, the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, Defenders of Wildlife, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Santa Cruz Museum of NAtural History, and the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History to learn about sea otters and experience wild sea otters from the best viewing locations in California. Volunteers will be ready to help you be expert otter spotters with binoculars and spotting scopes, answer your sea otter questions, and share how you can help protect sea otters! Click on the Sea Otter Awareness Week icons on the map below to find the station nearest you. Each location icon has a photo of the site and hours when volunteers will be present. 

Highlights of Sea Otter Awareness Week 2021

For a full list of the week's events, visit the Defenders of Wildlife Sea Otter Awareness Week page.

Float Down the Coast Livestream

Tuesday, September 21, 2021, 12:00pm - 1:00pm

Sea otter experts will report live from as far north as Washington or British Columbia and all along the California coast south to Baja to share some science and stories about sea otters. 

Look for this livestream on Sea Otter Savvy and CA State Parks' YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. 

T-shirt fundraiser

Show off you sea otter awareness and support our cause by purchasing a t-shirt featuring the Ecosystem Mosaic logo! 

Fundraiser auction on eBay: Ecosystem Mosaic

Bid to win an original mosaic art piece by New World Mosaic's Juan Lopez. This peice was inspired by this year's logo and was custom made to commemorate the them of "Ecosystem Mosaic". Bidding on this striking art work will begin on September 19th and will run for 10 days. All proceeds will go to support Sea Otter Savvy in our mission to inspire stewardship of sea otters. 

Make your Ecosystem Mosaic!

Show us your creative side by entering the Ecosystem Mosaic Challenge! Download the template, follow the directions (be creative!), and share your masterpiece with @seaottersavvy in Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube. 

Ecosystem Mosaic Challenge template and instructions

We Were Here Events

wwh 1Look for the tag #WeWereHere for events that are part of our We Were Here sea otter program.

The goal of the We Were Here campaign is to educate the public and stakeholders in the San Francisco, Northern California regions about the historical role of sea otters and their potential value to northern California ecosystems. With the focus of southern sea otter conservation and recovery efforts increasingly focused on population expansion beyond the current range limits, it is vital to start instilling a sense of stewardship and a desire for coexistence among coastal communities where sea otters may soon appear.

Visit the We Were Here page and take the survey to share your opinion about reintroduction as a strategy to reestablish sea otters in their historical range. 

The Sea Otter Awareness Week Planning Team

 

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