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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

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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Jack Ames (at middle) with an early California Department of Fish and Game sea otter team in the 1970s

Jack Ames

March 9, 1941-January 3, 2023

By Colleen Young

Jack Alfred Ames graduated from Great Falls High School in Montana in 1959, attended American River Junior College, then earned a B.S. in Life Sciences at Sacramento State College in 1967. During high school and college, he spent summers working as a fisherman and fish buyer’s assistant in Ketchikan and Point Baker, Alaska, and during college, also worked part-time as a veterinary assistant, a truck loader (loading 5-gallon water bottles), a termite damage repairman, and as a StudentResearch Assistant for a plankton ID and enumeration project at Sac State. In July 1967, Jack took a full-time job as a Junior Aquatic Biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) on a tuna research project; he was promoted to an Assistant Marine Biologist on the same project after a short time. He probably didn’t know it at the time, but that was the start of an incredible 5-decade career as a public servant at CDFG.  

jack oil team            Jack conducting wildlife search and collection during the Cosco Busan oil spill response.Jack worked as a CDFG fisheries biologist for 5 years, monitoring the albacore tuna fishery and assessing sportfish populations. In July 1972, he transferred from Long Beach to Monterey to join the Marine Region’s (MR) Sea Otter Project. During his early years as a sea otter biologist, he assisted with and led several projects including the design and construction of equipment for several methods of sea otter capture, collection and necropsy of stranded sea otters, and sea otter population monitoring. From the early 80s to the early 90s, in addition to strandings and mortality studies, Jack led or participated in studies designed to understand the effect of various kinds of fishing gear on sea otter mortality, studies to compare the accuracy of various sea otter survey methodology, and studies to refine the capture, transport, and holding of sea otters. He also deployed to Alaska to assist with the recovery and rehabilitation of sea otters during the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS) response.  


jack censusJack lead a Big Sur section of the range-wide southern sea otter census for decades.

 In 1991 Jack was recruited as one of the first employees in CDFG’s newly established Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR). At OSPR, Jack continued to work with his MR colleagues on sea otter research and monitoring and was the go-to expert on sea otters for OSPR. With his extensive knowledge of sea otter biology and his experience at EVOS, Jack started ordering equipment and supplies to make California better prepared for a spill involving sea otters. He also served as the wildlife rehab coordinator prior to the formation of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. In 1997, OSPR’s Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center, a facility designed to wash and rehabilitate oiled sea otters, opened in Santa Cruz. That year the sea otter program was transferred from MR to OSPR, and Jack transferred to the MWVCRC. He continued to lead sea otter stranding response and mortality investigations, spearheaded several studies to improve preparedness for response to oil spills affecting sea otters, and responded to numerous oil spills, rescuing countless oiled animals, until his retirement in 2011.  

Even after 44 years of full-time work for the Department, Jack immediately signed on as a Retired Annuitant and continued to help with sea otter captures, necropsies, population monitoring, oil spill responses, and various other projects on a regular basis through October 2022.  

In addition to his core job duties, Jack also assisted with other projects whenever colleagues needed a boat driver or strong field assistant, and he trained and mentored countless students and young scientists. Jack led or co-authored dozens of scientific journal articles and technical reports during his career and logged >2,000 dives as part of the CDFG dive program from 1968 through 2010; the longest active CDFG diving career on record. In 1997 he helped develop BeachCOMBERS, a beached marine vertebrate survey program, and conducted monthly surveys from the program’s inception through 2022. He also initiated and maintained decades-long partnerships with colleagues at agencies, universities, and organizations like the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, The Marine Mammal Center, UC Santa Cruz, Moss Landing Marine Labs, and UC Davis; partnerships that took him to Oregon, Washington, and Alaska for collaborative studies, and many of which still continue today. 

jack wilson trap                                                             The evolution of the Wilson trapWhile much of Jack’s work has been widely recognized within the sea otter research and oil spill response communities and beyond, some of his contributions are under-recognized or have only been appreciated by a small subset of colleagues. For example, the Wilson Trap, named after CDFG biologist Ken Wilson, is a piece of equipment now known by all sea otter scientists as the go-to, safe way to capture wild sea otters. Along with Ken and Paul Wild, Jack was heavily involved in the development of the trap and the evolution of the associated capture technique. This work was highlighted in a 1973 episode of Wild Kingdom that featured Jack, and he continued to improve the trap and capture method with colleagues in the following decades.  


jack push trapJack at far left holding the early "push" version of the Wilson Trap with the CA Department of Fish and Game circa 1970s 

Jack also was instrumental in developing and implementing a unique geographic reference system to record locations and document movements of tagged sea otters along the coastline before the advent of GPS. The As-The-Otter-Swims (ATOS) system started as a set of paper maps with ATOS numbers assigned every 0.5 km along the coast. Soon, this system was adapted to record locations of stranded sea otters and every stranded otter was assigned the ATOS number closest to the stranding location. This system allowed users to easily and quickly calculate distances between animals, summarize location data, and monitor geographical stranding and disease outbreak patterns. Although GPS coordinates are now recorded as well, the ATOS system is still employed and has been used to analyze geographic stranding and tagged otter movement data for numerous studies and has been used in spatial statistics for epidemiological studies of sea otter health risks and the identification of specific environmental risk factors, such as land-sea pathogen transfer.

jack diver   Jack in 2016 with a modern Wilson trap ready to dive for a sea otter research project in Monterey BayAdditionally, Jack played a pivotal role in distinguishing shark bite wounds from boat propeller wounds on stranded sea otters. He made careful observations about shark bite wound patterns and characteristics, then developed the first criteria for differentiating the wound types. His work led to the re-evaluation and correction of many cases that had originally been mis-characterized as propeller strikes. 

Finally, Jack’s work has directly benefitted the conservation of sea otters in California. He was involved in identifying incidental drownings of sea otters in gill and trammel nets as a significant source of mortality, which influenced gillnet restrictions in State waters. He also conducted experimental research on sea otter entrapment in finfish traps that led to the requirement of a rigid 5-inch ring on the fyke openings of the traps to exclude sea otters from entering. 



Watch Jack's Wild Kingdom "World of Sea Otters" episode below. Disclaimer: The hand-feeding of wild sea otters depicted in this video was a reflection of attitudes of the 1970s. Feeding of sea otters or any marine mammal is unlawful based on the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protections Acts and is strongly discouraged.

Jack was an incredible field biologist and an old-school naturalist whomade observations, asked questions, and made innumerable contributions to the advancement of sea otter research and conservation. However, a successful, influential career is not what defined Jack. What made him extraordinary was his character. He was extremely humble about his accomplishments and accolades, and was also kind, caring, funny, generous, and compassionate. Despite growing up in a time and place where overt racism was the norm, Jack rejected that paradigm and embraced anti-racism. He also was a champion of gender equity before it was a mainstream topic, advocating for and supporting female colleagues in a field that was, until recently, almost exclusively male. 

From left: Sea Otter Savvy director Gena Bentall, Jack Ames, and USGS biologist Brian Hatfield on a sea otter research vessel near Pt. Conception in 2012.            Jack (center) and colleagues on a sea otter research vessel near Pt. Conception in 2012.What’s also remarkable about Jack was his community of friends, many of whom started as co-workers and colleagues. The number of his friendships, and the depth of connection, he maintained for decades is inspiring; he was a best friend to many, and a sincere mentor to those who came after him. But perhaps his most endearing quality was his hugs, and boy was Jack a hugger! A hug from Jack was always sure to brighten your day and lift your spirits. In fact, those who knew him could probably use a Jack hug right now. 

He loved his family, friends, and animals of all species, and spent his free time hiking, camping, backpacking, and horsepacking in Baja California, Big Sur, and the Sierras. He spent countless hours working on his house and property, helping neighbors and friends, and taking care of the family pets, which through the years included cats, dogs, goats, horses, guinea pigs, and an alpaca, to name a few. Jack was adored by all who were fortunate enough to call him a friend. He will be terribly missed, but fond memories will keep us smiling, as will keeping in touch with those he loved the most: his wife, his three children, and his large community of friends.

jack byron

Jack examining a dead sea otter with his son in Moss Landing in 1982. The otter was entangled in a gill net – an issue that Jack helped mitigate. Photo by CDFG. 

Colleen and Jack counting sea otters in Big Sur in 2021Colleen and Jack counting sea otters in Big Sur in 2021Colleen Young in an Environmental Scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz, CA. Colleen was a longtime colleague and friend of Jack Ames and is currently an advisor to Sea Otter Savvy. 

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Photo by Joan Tisdale

What has become of Friends of the Sea Otter?

Sea Otter Savvy often gets inquiries about the present status of the iconic conservation nonprofit organization Friends of the Sea Otter. Founded in 1968, this advocacy group dedicated efforts over half a century to the protection and conservation of sea otters and gave them a voice at a time in their recovery that they needed it most. In 2020, Friends of the Sea Otter closed its doors entrusting its legacy and goals to Defenders of Wildlife.  Friends of the Sea Otter was the first to actively inspire the public at large about the sea otters’ unique behavior and habitat and to take action to fully recover a remarkable and vulnerable species. 


By Cassie Pais (former staff of Friends of the Sea Otter) and Gena Bentall

margaret owings 300FSO founder, Margaret OwingFriends of the Sea Otter (FSO) was founded by Margaret Owings, a well-respected conservationist, and Dr. Jim Mattison, an avid outdoorsman, in 1968. Mrs. Owings was instrumental in establishing environmental policy to benefit the sea otter. She spoke to legislators in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. and she rallied scientists, conservationists, educators, and friends to embrace FSO’s mission. Meanwhile, Dr. Mattison utilized his considerable medical knowledge to help in the biological research of otters. He turned his scuba diving hobby into a treasure trove of sea otter pictures, information, and data, and he helped develop a curriculum for teachers, produced a film about otters, and was instrumental in establishing FSO as an otter and otter habitat resource organization. Together, Mrs. Owings and Dr. Mattison transformed FSO from a small, grassroots effort to one of the most well-known and respected sea otter advocacy organizations in the world.

In the decades following inception, FSO was instrumental in securing protections for the sea otter that have allowed for significant population growth. When FSO was founded in 1968, the population size of the southern sea otter was only about 650. FSO and partner organizations fought to restore the sea otters' habitat and restrict hunting, exploitative fishing and shellfishing practices, and other forms of disturbance that hinder population growth. Due, in part, to their efforts, the southern sea otter population has significantly increased in number to the roughly 3000 otters living in California today!

FSO’s major accomplishments include:

  • Testifying in Washington, D.C. during the enactment and subsequent reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protections Act, and played a major role in the formulation of these laws. FSO also contributed to the listing of the southern sea otter as a “threatened species.”
  • Playing a pivotal role in achieving state bans on gill netting within the shallow waters of the sea otter range.
  • Reducing the oil spill risk to the southern sea otter population and its coastal environment.
  • Collaborating with partner groups for nearly 25 years to secure the end to the No-Otter Zone and the translocation program, which was eliminated officially in January 2013, and intervening as a defendant against a lawsuit by the fishing industry seeking to reinstate zonal management.
  • Working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and partner groups to promote the California Sea Otter Fund, the tax check off that appears on California state income tax 540 forms.
  • Supporting scientific research on important issues related to sea otter conservation.
  • Serving a key role in developing the sea otter recovery plan and helping achieve its recommended actions.

FSO remained a leading voice in sea otter advocacy until merging with long-time partner Defenders of Wildlife in 2020. While the loss of the iconic Friends of the Sea Otter name and logo is bittersweet, transfering the mission of the protection and recovery of the sea otter and its coastal ecosystem to a national organization promises to strengthen efforts and broaden engagement. Sea Otter Savvy has taken up much of the resposibility for outreach to local communities and beyond. Together Sea Otter Savvy and Defenders of Wildlife aspire to live up to the legacy established by Margaret Owings in 1968.

Read more about the 2020 transition and current sea otter advocacy at Defenders of Wildlife.

Photo by Gena Bentall

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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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