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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

Our Consumption of Wildness

By Gena Bentall

Sea otters in California are commonly found in heavily urbanized areas. Photo by Gena Bentall

I have many vivid memories of the stories of individual tagged wild sea otters from the thirteen years I spent tracking them every day...

The process of data collection has detachment built in—we stand on shore, 100s of meters from the sea otters we’re tracking, with high-powered telescopes that can zoom our perspective right onto the sea otter’s belly. Connecting with the same individuals every day—the goal was to resight every tagged sea otter in our study area daily—unavoidably cultivated respect and affection for sea otters as individuals. We were lucky. We could experience that intimate bond without proximity. We often joked that the sea otters had no idea of the extent to which they were being spied on. I suspect most others living on or visiting the California central coast have not had the privilege of such relationship with wildness. In fact, I suspect they’ve been starved of it.

In the early days of human development, a connection to wildness was an immersive, unavoidable part of existence. Our very survival depended upon deep understanding of nature. As civilization progressed, significant innovation was directed and distancing and protecting ourselves from the wild—housing, agriculture, the meat industry, urbanization. In the era of AI and handheld technology we may be farther from our early bonds to the plants and animals consumption santacruz nlarocheSea otters in urbanized areas are chronically exposed to human activities . Photo by Nicole LaRochearound us than ever before. During our current observations of humans and sea otters for Sea Otter Savvy, we often see kayakers experiencing wildlife through their smart phones. This is so frequent, in fact, we have a field on our data sheet to record it (insert graph). I often describe people as having a “screen mentality” about wildlife. For many, their only experience of wild animals has been through the screen of their television, computer, or phone and, once confronted with a real world wild creature, the view through a screen offers a sense of comfort, safety and, unfortunately, detachment.

With their combination of charisma and accessibility, sea otters are frequent targets of pursuit—usually headed their way in the form of kayakers, scuba divers, and boaters—with the goal of a photo for Instagram or that yearned for personal encounter. It has been a central mission of our organization to work within communities to reduce disturbance to sea otters caused by these frequent too-close approaches. But the chronic exposure to people can lead to what might seem at first glance to be the opposite effect—habituation--the loss of a wild animal’s natural aversion to humans, and sometimes predators in general. A quick internet search can bring up a list of viral videos of kayakers with habituated sea otters aboard their boat—celebrating the encounter, lauded and envied by followers—with no comprehension of the harmful impact of such encounters to the sea otters. How could this innocent interaction be harmful?

consumption sea otter biteThis girl was lucky this habituated sea otter only got a mouthful of her fleece and not her arm. Photo by Gena BentallDirect interaction with sea otters can be dangerous to pets, people, and otters. Sea otters are carnivores with powerful jaws and sharp teeth that can inflict serious injury. Sea otters are dangerous animals and incidents of sea otter aggression towards people or pets are also likely to result in the otter being removed from the wild. Inevitably, it will be the sea otter that suffers the ramifications. Sea Otter Savvy is battling against a viral torrent of naivete cloaked as affection in discouraging these hazardous interactions.

The world witnessed a viral tsunami of another sort in the coverage or Santa Cruz’s surfboard stealing sea otter, 841, whose story has ascended to legend (and even the name of a local ice cream flavor). For me, her story has not been one of nature getting revenge on encroaching humans, but rather a cautionary tale of what our inescapable presence has diminished in these animals. In her lifetime, sea otter 841 (indicating that she is the 841st sea otter released through the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s rehabilitation program) was exposed to humans from her birth to present day. Rehabilitation, while designed to avoid habituating its customers to humans, unavoidably exposes them to the shapes, smells, sounds, and world of humans. From there 841 was released into the waters of Monterey Bay where humans are ubiquitous and escape from their presence impossible, particularly for a female who is limited to shallower waters than a larger male. Whether 841 has traits that predispose her to bold behavior we can only speculate, but the human factors—kayakers, boaters, paddleboarders, surfers—had her literally surrounded.

Once photos and videos of her hit the media, the public interest was engaged at full throttle, and the codependent relationship of information supply and demand took on a Godzilla-like stature. Like the snake ouroboros, the story consumed its own origins and induced curious 841 fans to seek out sea otters not just at her Santa Cruz home but at all our Central California coastal study sites. We recorded record disturbance during the weeks of peak media coverage. Sea otters were “in” and the moral of 841s story was lost.

Below are photgraphs taken in an afternoon overlooking Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz during the "surfing sea otter" frenzy. Top: A couple in a small boat ignores the "alert" warning behavior of the sea otter raft and eventually causes them all to dive and flee. Photo By Brad Peebler. Bottom: This photographer separated a female sea otter with a pup from the raft while taking her picture. Photo by Gena Bentall.

Habituation—the diminishing of loss of a wild animal’s aversion to humans—is tricky to define scientifically. There has been little research into the cause and effect of habituation in sea otters (graduate students in search of a thesis, drop me a note) bit it seems likely that repeated, prolonged exposure to human activities is a factor. Especially damaging are exposures that offer a resource reward like feeding and providing a kayak haul out. These same interactions are perceived as enchanting to people because they fulfill the need for that precious and rare intimate bond with nature. Unfortunately, our hunger for connection with wildlife is paired in time and space with the need of wild animals (and plants too, whose voice is even harder to hear) to have distance from us. i

We have retained the ancestral longing for wildness and perhaps perceive its absence consciously or in the form of an undefined emptiness.  But we have forgotten or lost the skills needed to interact appropriately. I sometimes refer to this rare trait as “animal sense”. We as humans can learn though. And as cultures are overtaken by population growth, urban sprawl, pandemics, and addiction to technology, learning is our obligation.

My words may cast me as pessimistic, but the contrary is true. Were it not for my belief in the possibility of change, Sea Otter Savvy, and its hopeful message that the communities and neighbors of sea otters can be their heroes, could not survive. Awareness, and a willingness to adapt how we assert our place on the planet, can overtake the damage being done. I believe it must.

Let us relearn or redefine what coexistence with wildlife means in the modern world! For the sea otters of California, there is no place they can escape to be free of human proximity and the threat that inevitably imposes. Of all wild creatures, we are the ones that can make choices about how we behave. We are the ones who have the self-awareness to recognize our impacts on other species and adjust our behavior to minimize harm. Coexistence no longer has the space to be completely anthropocentric. We are not separate or above our wild neighbors, they are part of our ecology and sustainable coexistence allows all to thrive. In this ever more crowded world, we may have to find ways to feed our hunger to connect with wildness, without irretrievably consuming it.

consumption good behaviorGuided kayakers in Elkhorn Slough manage their group span and distance to view sea otters safely and responsibly. Photo by Gena Bentall

Learn to be a good neighbor to wildlife:
Be Sea Otter Savvy: https://www.seaottersavvy.org/viewing-guidelines
National Marine Sanctuaries Wildlife Viewing Guidelines: https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/wildlife-viewing/
Respect Wildlife: https://www.respect-wildlife.org/


consumption bio Gena sunsetGena Bentall is the Founder, Director, and Senior Scientist for Sea Otter Savvy. She has spent countless hours over more than 20 years observing sea otters and humans together in their ecosystem. 

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FINAL SOAW logo 2023

Throughout Sea Otter Awareness Week 2023 (September 24-30) you can meet volunteers and staff from SeaLife Stewards, Sea Otter Savvy, The Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz Museums of Natural History, the Central Coast Aquarium, and the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History to learn about 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 and be Sea Otter Savvy! 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. 

This year's theme, "Restoring Missing Links," recognizes that sea otters remain absent from large portions of their historical range while celebrating the active efforts of conservation groups to restore a continuous population of these charismatic creatures and other missing elements along the Pacific coast. Explore all the activities and events taking place during Sea Otter Awareness Week 2023 at https://defenders.org/sea-otter-awareness-week

Get Sea Otter Awareness Week 2023 official swag HERE.

7 Days of Sea Otter Awareness Quiz! 

How sea otter savvy are you?

Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter throughout the week of September 24-30, 2023 for daily posts to increase your sea otter awareness and ace our SOAW quiz! 

  • The quiz will be published at 12:00 PM September 30, take he quiz by scanning the QR code below or by clicking this HERE.
  • Answer each question–our posts throughout the week will help you 
  • TAke the quiz by 5:00 pm PST, October 6, 2023
  • Winning entry will be drawn randomly from entries scoring 100%
  • Winner will receive a Sea Otter Savvy t-shirt of their size and color choice!

7 days quiz QR code SOAW23

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The Spore Solution: Helping Kelp Forests Regain Their Former Glory

Bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) canopy in Drake's Bay, California. Photo by Dan Gossard

A novel restoration technique could add to the efforts aimed to solve the kelp conundrum in northern California…

kelp urchinbarrens zackRandellA purple urchin barrens in California. Photo by Zach RandellImagine for a moment, that you are a drowsy otter, getting blissfully rocked to sleep by the gentle rise and fall of the surge, without a care in the world. You are safe because the kelp draped over your belly will anchor you and keep you from being swept away during your slumber. This is the charismatic image that comes to mind when one thinks about Monterey Bay, and what one might imagine the northern coast looking like before the otters disappeared. The dense, golden kelp forests are the foundation along the rugged Pacific Coast, providing food for the critters on the bottom, shelter for the fish swimming below the surface, and an anchor for a tired furry mammal. These beds of swaying algae are also cherished by humans, including scuba divers, artists, and beachgoing children alike. But beyond their aesthetic attributes, these bountiful forests also perform a critical ecosystem function, serving as a foundational species, a species that is abundant and can uniquely control the surrounding biodiversity.

Unfortunately, in recent years it has become no secret that the California kelp forests are in decline, with little hope for a natural rebound. It all started in 2013, when a devastating disease known as seastar wasting syndrome, wiped out many seastar populations, including the sea-urchin-devouring sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides). One year later, the ocean along the Pacific Coast experienced unusually warm temperatures for a prolonged period of time, creating non-ideal conditions for bull kelp forests. In that same year, scientists detected a reduction in annual kelp forest cover up and down the California coast. This “perfect storm” was a one-two punch to bull kelp, putting it at a severe disadvantage that caused a shift from healthy forests to urchin barrens over the course of just a few years. By 2019, an estimated 95 percent of the northern kelp forests had disappeared, causing profitable commercial fisheries for red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) and red sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) to dramatically decline. The resulting barrens, in the absence of kelp forests and characterized by bare rocky bottoms and ravenous hordes of purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), are now common off the coast of California.

Now, for most, this drastic change in the ecosystem that seemingly happened overnight was a shock and a reason for immediate action. The kelp forests are a staple along the California coast, and without this foundational species, we know that the whole ecosystem shifts. Understandably, fishers, locals, and some scientists, quickly sprang into action, formulating ways to intervene to hopefully keep the forests alive. However, some scientists urged caution, suggesting everyone take a step back and look at the full picture. Much like a pendulum that swings back and forth, the kelp forest ecosystem has two “steady states” or systems that remain stable until a large shift occurs and swings that system to the opposite state. The kelp forest is either in a healthy kelp forest state or an urchin barren state. Throughout history, humans have documented kelp forests swinging back and forth, shifting between these two stable states. This means that the kelp forest could naturally recover from an urchin-barren state, it just needs time and the right conditions. However, much of California’s coastal economy (and many people’s livelihoods) relies on the kelp forest staying in a stable and healthy state. Because of this, state officials and scientists agreed that intervening and assisting the kelp forests in their recovery was the best plan of action.

Kelp On the boat pre dispersalResearchers prepare for a spore dispersal from the boat. Photo by Elizabeth Carpenter.However, kelp restoration is no easy task. This is especially true in northern California due to the dynamic, high-wave action coast, the presence of an insatiable grazer, and the unique life history of the bull kelp species. As an annual kelp, it completes its entire life cycle within one year. This life history aligns with seasonal variability, with growth occurring in the early spring through summer, and spore production and dispersal taking place in the fall. Much like a fern, bull kelp produces reproductive spores that are packed by the millions into specialized tissues called sori, releasing and dispersing the spores when they are mature. Bull kelp completes its life cycle when its long, flowing strands are ripped from the seafloor and deposited on the beach by large winter storms. Although this live-fast-die-young life history allows the bull kelp to persist in extreme environments, its annual life cycle poses many challenges for restoration. The most successful techniques applied to kelp in California to date have focused on species that either reproduce year-round or are in low-wave action regions.

In recent years ecologists and biologists, alongside state officials, non-profit kelp experts, and passionate commercial and recreational divers, have been working around the clock to try and restore the kelp forests, including the northern California canopy forming kelp species, bull kelp (Nereocystis lutkeana). Kelp restoration techniques that are currently being tested include urchin removals, spore bags, seeded lines, and seeded gravel. However, the hungry urchins are quick to devour any new bull kelp that starts to grow, preventing kelp forests from recovering. Divers have worked tirelessly to remove purple urchins, eliminating over 50,000 lbs from 2019 to 2021, reducing the density of urchins in hopes that the kelp would come back on its own. Spore bags (mesh bags with spore-dense material collected from a nearby healthy bull kelp bed) and seeded lines (spore-seeded rope bolted to the seafloor) have also been tested alongside urchin removals. There have also been experiments with Green Gravel, or gravel seeded with kelp spores. However, regardless of the technique, researchers have found that kelp restoration methods are generally costly and limited to restoring small regions at a time. In August 2022, The Spore Solution Team, (Elizabeth Carpenter, FISHBIO and Daniel Gossard, Monterey Bay Seaweeds), joined the battle to save the kelp forests, proposing to test a novel restoration technique that may be used as a complementary tool to bolster kelp forest recovery.

kelp pilot study with microscope slidesResearcher Dan Gossard secures the custom 3D-printed microscope slide holder to a concrete block as part of a pilot experiment to test how far the spores disperse. Photo by Elizabeth Carpenter.The Spore Solution kelp restoration project, funded by Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, aims to test a technique that reduces overall costs, removes the need for physical substrates for kelp spores (like mesh bags, rope, or gravel), and may restore large swaths of kelp forests in a single deployment. The approach is meant to be a spore dispersal enhancement, providing a “helping hand” to the few natural populations of bull kelp still present in northern California. The methodology is based on three simple steps: 1) collect a small amount of spore-rich material from a local bull kelp population, 2) encourage spores to release into a container of seawater, and 3) deploy the concentrated solution of spores to the restoration site. This third step is made easy by the affectionately named “Reef Duster,” a custom-fabricated system that deposits the spore solution directly to the ocean floor. Restoration areas targeted during the experiments include regions where bull kelp forests historically flourished. The Spore Solution project team conducted the first spore dispersal trial in September 2022 in Drake’s Bay, but due to a variety of issues, including the very uncharacteristically wet winter in early 2023, the spores dispersed were likely buried by sediment. In June 2023, a pilot study was conducted in Monterey Bay, to measure the applicability of the method and the distance in which the spores traveled once they were dispersed on the sea floor. Initial findings suggest that when billions of spores are dispersed directly to the substrate, spores will recruit within meters of the dispersal point. These findings give the Spore Solution Team hope that this method could be scaled up to regional restoration efforts in the future. In September 2023, the Spore Solution Team will be dispersing spores once more in Drake’s Bay, keeping their fingers crossed that 2024 doesn't bring along more uncharacteristic winter storms.

Someday we hope the sea otters once again drowsily sleeping in northern California’s kelp beds, once again lending their predatory superpowers to efforts to restore coastal ecosystems. Until then, the future will tell if this novel technique is successful on a larger scale, and how it may become a tool in the restoration toolbox used to solve the northern California kelp conundrum.

If you would like to visualize kelp canopy loss in California over time, check out The Nature Conservancy’s interactive map at kelpwatch.org.

Sea otters rafted in a California kelp bed. Photo by Joan Tisdale.

kelp Elizabeth RamsayAbout Guest Blogger Elizabeth Carpenter

Elizabeth is an aquatic biologist and communications specialist with extensive experience in a wide variety of marine and freshwater systems. She has many years of experience working as a scientific communicator and biologist in aquatic systems. She regularly writes reports, develops communication materials for multiple websites and social media platforms, and mentors science communication interns at FISHBIO. Elizabeth holds a Master of Science Degree in Marine Biology and Ecology from California State University Monterey Bay and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, where she designed an experimental thesis testing morphological plasticity in two kelp species based on wave exposure along the Monterey Bay Peninsula.

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Confirmation bias may play a part in "verifying" the mythical paw-holding behavior when viewing wild sea otters. Untrained observers are expecting to see it and so these closely rafted sea otters are thought to be clasping paws when, in fact, they aren't. Photo by Gena Bentall

Sea Otter Paw Holding: A Reality Check from the Scientists

By Gena Bentall

The setting is the sea otter exhibit at the Vancouver Aquarium: A pair of captive sea otters (Milo and Tanu) were filmed during a very public display of affection, clasping paws in front of aquarium visitors and soon, the world.  Internet dates are a bit untrustworthy, but I’ve yet to find reference to this video earlier than 2011 (let me know if this date is incorrect). Prior to the debut of Milo and Tanu, this sea otter behavior was absent from the public (and professional) lexicon. You will not see mention of paw-holding in sea otter ethograms (a list of behaviors for a specific species), nor the esteemed works of Georg Steller, Karl Kenyon, or Jim Estes.  Why? This is simply not a typical or even uncommon behavior of wild sea otters. Based on polls of scientists who having studied wild sea otters for decades (including me), paw-holding is vanishingly rare in the wild.

In the early days of the popularity of the video of Milo and Tanu, the commotion seemed innocent enough. I even sculpted a cake topper for a colleague’s wedding in 2011 (ah, the bliss of myopia). The memes seemed clearly attached to the captive sea otters and floated harmlessly in the social media sea of the sea-otter-hosting aquaria and their followers. Merchandizing was quick to capitalize and socks, throw pillows, pajamas, Valentine’s Day cards—even underwear at my beloved MeUndies.com —flooded the sea otter niche in the marketplace. Still, I am limited to eye-rolling. It was the corruption of “legitimate” information sources that made me begin to take this more seriously.  The internets have a cannibalistic habit of feeding on themselves for facts, and even websites perceived as trustworthy were citing “paw-holding” alongside legitimate facts about sea otters like their high metabolic demand (yup, they consume 25% or more of their body weight in food daily) and record-breaking fur coat (up to 1,000,000 hairs per sq inch).  

"...sea otters can gather in groups of up to 1,000 individuals, grasping one another’s forefeet to create large rafts or pods."

-Encyclopedia Britannica

Contemporaneously, I was working as a sea otter field biologist, spending most of my workdays from dawn until dusk observing and collecting data on wild sea otters on the central California coast, Alaska, Russia, and San Nicolas Island. I could testify that I had never observed this behavior, and I began asking colleagues about their experience with it. I recently made a conservative estimate of the number of wild sea otters I've observed during my heyday of field work: For 13 years of my career before starting with Sea Otter Savvy, I spent 5 or more days a week doing little else but looking at wild sea otters. A low estimate would be 100 sea otters per day, 200 days per year times 13 years, that’s over 260,000 otters without seeing this behavior ONCE. Sadly, I don’t see wild sea otters nearly as much as Director of Sea Otter Savvy, but I still reckon a low estimate of 30 per week, 52 weeks per year for 7 years for 10,920 more wild observations. Full disclosure now, I have seen wild sea otters do it twice since starting Sea Otter Savvy in 2015. That makes twice in the last 20 years so 4 otters out of 270,920 equals an estimate of .001476% of sea otters I have seen holding paws over my two decade career.  There are other weird things I’ve seen sea otters do much more frequently that I still wouldn’t include on a basic list of facts about them (e.g. rafting with strips of plastic trash or a myriad of individual examples of poor parenting). One of the most deeply engrained lessons I've learned is that sea otters are individuals with distinct personalities whose quirks do not necessarily apply at a population level.

I’ve informally polled plenty of colleagues about their experience with this behavior over the years but as our first in-person Sea Otter Conservation Workshop at the Seattle Aquarium approached, I saw an opportunity to formalize the poll, gain a little insight about attitudes, and present the results to an audience of colleagues. Below are some of the key findings. The first figure shows results only from sea otter scientists who had greater than 10 years of field experience.

For those who answered "yes" to the above question, I asked how many times they had observed the paw-holding behavior in the wild. The vast majority of these experienced experts from California, Alaska, Canada, and Washington who had seen it, had only seen it 1-2 times. 

Below is a simple poll of attitude about this meme. Most respondents across all professional and experience categories were neutral about the paw-holding meme (at least BEFORE they saw my talk) with the scientists who spend 1000s of hours observing wild sea otters objecting the strongest. 

Why should YOU care? Here are a few reasons spreading the paw-holding myth is NOT sea otter savvy:

I'll finish up with a lesson in humility. A few years ago, I was being interviewed during a live stream that was being broadcast internationally. We were at the railing at the famed Morro Bay's south t-pier, where a raft of sea otters can be regularly spotted in winter. I had just answered a question about paw-holding with my usual speech about its inaccuracy when the interviewer pointed behind me and asked, "Well, what are these otters doing?" Indeed, a pair of adult females were rebutting my statements with clear defiance—their grizzled paws intertwined—right behind my back. I was consumed by a breathless belly laugh, I love moments like this. Nature is always there to remind us she has few absolutes, and scientists utter the words "never" and "always" at their own peril. 


Gena Bentall is the Director and Senior Scientist of Sea Otter Savvy

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