logo sos

Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

 Bachelor raft at Moss Landing

Friends of the Sea Otter is an advocacy group dedicated to actively working with state and federal agencies and other groups to maintain, increase, and broaden the current protections for the sea otter, a species currently protected by state and federal laws, and with two geographic protections on the Endangered Species list. We wish to inspire the public at large about the otters’ unique behavior and habitat and to take action to fully recover this remarkable species. 

By Cassie Pais, guest writer from Friends of the Sea Otter


margaret owings 300FSO founder, Margaret OwingsFriends 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.

What Do We Do

FSO has been 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 have fought to restore the sea otter’s habitat and restrict hunting, exploitative fishing and shellfishing practices, and other forms of disturbance that hinder population growth. Due to these successful efforts, the southern sea otter population has significantly increased in number and now includes over 3,200 otters 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 California 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.

Mom and pup hauled out on dock in MontereyFSO remains a leading voice in sea otter advocacy today. While FSO is thrilled with the progress that has been made, the sea otter continues to face a host of challenges and barriers to full recovery. Between incidents of harassment, limited range expansion, and habitat degradation as a result of pollution and climate change, FSO knows there is plenty of critical work ahead. We will continue to work with on-the-ground partners, including Sea Otter Savvy, to educate the public on sea otter behavior, conservation issues, and the impact of human disturbance. In addition, we will continue to work with federal, state, and local policy makers to establish and maintain protections for sea otters and their habitat.

As a relatively small organization with a large impact, we count on the dedicated support of our members, donors, and volunteers to get things done. To learn more about FSO, go to www.seaotters.org or contact Cassie Pais at . Please follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay involved! 

 Sea Otter Savvy to proud to partner with Friends of the Sea Otter to protect California's sea otters!




 mom pup mussel JTA mother sea otter eats a mussel while pup swims nearby. Photo by Joe Tomoleoni

By Joe Tomoleoni

Sea otters are many things: apex predators, keystone species, a conservation success story, and for photographers… a highly sought after and engaging photo subject.  It’s easy to see why people love otters and why photographers love to take their pictures.  They are expressive, beautiful, and intelligent subjects.  And of course, few images have the ability to “break the internet” like a fuzzy newborn otter pup.  In reality, otters can be an extremely difficult species to photograph.  Here are some tips that will help you come away with memorable sea otter images:

respect the nap JT 350x211Where, When, and How

You can find otters in or around kelp forests along the rocky outer coast.  This is a dramatic and scenic habitat, but otters are generally too far away to effectively photograph from shore.  Otters also utilize bays, estuaries, and harbors.  Not only do these protected waters give you a better chance of getting within photographic range, but the calmer waters make for easier photography.  

For otters close to the coast or in protected waters, you may be able to shoot from the shoreline.  This is my preferred method since it allows me to setup my rig on a tripod, sit, and wait.  For otters that are further away, you may need to shoot from a vessel.  Whale watching boats or wildlife tour boats often cater to photographers and generally do a good job of finding your subject while still maintaining a safe distance.  Kayaking is also very effective at getting you out to the otters.  Just remember to protect your gear from the saltwater, and to maintain a respectful distance.

joe tomoleoni portrait 350x226Gear

If your plan is to photograph sea otters with your smartphone, you should go to your local zoo or aquarium.  If you’re close enough to a wild otter to get a good camera phone pic – you’re way too close!  Any DSLR camera body will do, though choosing a body with a cropped sensor will give you more “pixels on subject” than a full frame sensor.  As is usually the case with wildlife photography, the glass you use is more important than the camera body.  You’ll need a sharp telephoto lens.  There’s no such thing as too long a lens when photographing wild otters.  Use the longest lens in your bag.  My go-to lens is the Canon 500mm L f4, and I often pair it with a 1.4x teleconverter to maximize my reach.  If you’ve got a 600mm or 800mm telephoto lens in your kit, even better.  When shooting from shore, I love setting up on a sturdy tripod with a gimbal head.  On boats, tripods are useless so be aware that it may be difficult to handhold a very long lens like a 800mm while bouncing up and down in the waves.  You may be better off with a mid-length telephoto like a 400mm when shooting from a boat.  A pair of binoculars is a useful piece of kit for scouting areas and looking for otters.

 Techniques and Tips

The techniques used for sea otter photography are much the same as those used when photographing any terrestrial mammals.

1. Become a keen observer and study sea otter behavior.  This is best tip I can give you, the one that will get you the money shot.  Do your homework.  Don’t just hop out of the car and start clicking away at the nearest furry critter.  Watch the otters, learn their habits, and be patient.  Almost every great otter image I’ve made came as a result of sitting quietly in one spot for a long period of time.

otters interacting jtTwo young males sparring. Photo by Joe Tomoleoni

2. Blend in.  Become part of the shoreline.  Go slow and stay low to the ground.  Avoid unnecessary movement.  Not only will you be rewarded with some great otter encounters, but all sorts of other wildlife will also come within range while you wait.

3. Watch your exposure.  Sea otter fur can be very dark.  I usually dial in +1/3 to +1 stops of exposure compensation to correctly expose for the otter’s fur.  Sometimes this means the water gets overexposed, but that’s ok.  The subject is the otter so that’s what you want to get right.

otter tool jt resizeUsing a stone anvil to crack mussel prey. Photo by Joe Tomoleoni

4. Look for unique compositions.  The profile of an otter on the surface is long and thin, and as a result, leaves a lot of negative space in traditional compositions.  Look for different angles or body positioning to combat this problem.  Try shooting tight portraits where you just get the head, shoulders, and forepaws of the otter in the frame.  These tight crops are often very effective compositions because they fill the frame better and they focus on the expressive face of the otter.  Don’t cut the otter off mid-body.  One of the golden rules of people photography is to avoid cutting off the feet – so mind the flippers too!  Mid-body crops are awkward.  Crop for a tight portrait or else include the entire otter.

5. Don’t always fill the frame.  The exception here is if you’re shooting a portrait.  Otherwise, give the otter “room to breathe” in your composition.  Don’t crop the image so that the head and tail are right up at the edges of the frame.  Shoot from further away and incorporate some habitat (surface water, kelp bed, etc.) into the shot for a more pleasing environmental composition.

otter eating clam JT 350x219Foraging on a clam in Elkhorn Slough. Photo by Joe Tomoleoni

6. Get low.  If you can shoot from the water level you’ll be rewarded with a nicely isolated subject and some smooth, creamy bokeh.7. Capture interesting behaviors.  Otters do some really cool things.  Grooming behaviors can make for great shots.  A personal favorite of mine is foraging behavior.  Otters feed on dozens of different invertebrates, and a great image of an otter doing battle with an octopus or Dungeness crab is much more interesting than yet another sleeping otter picture.

A Word on Ethics

All photographers want to come away from their shoot with a great photo, but it’s important to remember that these are wild animals and must be treated with respect.  Sea otters are living on a razors edge, so any harassment, even unintentional harassment, could cause them a great deal of stress.  Not only is it unethical to disturb or harass sea otters during a photo shoot, it’s also illegal.  Sea otters are protected by both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, and any disturbance could be a violation of these laws.  Maintain a respectful distance at all times.  If the otter is frequently looking at you, then you’re probably too close.  If your actions or presence cause any noticeable change in behavior, back off.  No photo is worth harassing even a single otter.  Always remember to respect the nap!


All photographs in this article by Joe Tomoleoni. For more tips, tricks, and otter pics, as well as nature and wildlife photography, check out ecoexposurephotography.com or follow @ecoexposurephotography on Instagram and Facebook 

Photographer resting jt 1000

Harry the sea otter savvy beagleHarry, the sea otter savvy beagle says, keep your pet and sea otters safe. Prevent interactions!
Take some advice from the world's most sea otter savvy beagle, Harry: NEVER allow your dog to chase, harass, or interact with a sea otter!
A sea otter is capable of harming and even killing your pet.
Interactions between pets and wild animals are often interpreted as play, a term to which we often apply a human perspective. "Play" between a dog and a sea otter has been known to result in fatality to the pet.
dog and sea otter 400x278This dog is at risk of injury and is preventing this sea otter from coming ashore
If you allow your dog to interact with a sea otter you:
  • risk injury and death to both 
  • risk transferring disease from your dog to the sea otter or vice versa
  • are breaking two federal laws by causing harassment to a threatened species and a marine mammal.
Sea otters that cause injury or death to pets may end up being removed from the wild population.
Diseases that can be transmitted from your dog to a sea otter include canine distemper and rabies; diseases that may be transmitted from a sea otter to your dog include Salmonella, Streptococcus phocae, and possibly leptospirosis. Don't risk it!
Pet owners should immediately recall and restrain any pet approaching a sea otter. 
Bystanders should also take action to discourage such interactions: encourage the owner to restrain their pet and remind them they are breaking the law.
Don't encourage this behavior by promoting videos and photos  depicting interactions between pets and sea otters as "cute" on social media.
Be sea otter savvy with your pet!
dog and sea otter2 400x261What seems to be harmless play, can result in injury or death to pet or sea otter

Guided group from Monterey Bay Kayaks models respectful sea otter viewingGuided group from Monterey Bay Kayaks models respectful sea otter viewing in Moss Landing

By Gena Bentall and Hannah Walker

Thirty-one years ago Jeff and Cass Schrock had a vision to share their passion for the marine life of Monterey Bay with the world. Back when Del Monte Beach was lined with decrepit automotive and railroad buildings, Jeff and Cass started taking kayaking lessons to immerse themselves in the bay’s scenic views.

 In the mid-80s when natural history tours of coastal Monterey Bay were uncommon and kayaking as a form of marine recreation was in its infancy, the Schrocks purchased their first fleet and Monterey Bay Kayaks was born.

Monterey Bay Kayaks Manager, Sean Furey, stands with kayaks featuring Sea Otter Savvy decalsMonterey Bay Kayaks Manager, Sean Furey, stands with kayaks featuring Sea Otter Savvy decals

Pioneers of their time, Jeff and Cass worked alongside fellow eco-tourism pioneers, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to foster a renewed awareness of the unique natural treasures of Monterey Bay and welcomed an influx of visitors ready to explore. 

 Cass describes how their focus was of helping people discover the bay’s unique wildlife from the very beginning, “Jeff was a ‘home-grown’ naturalist. When we first started kayaking, he already knew about all the wildlife. He’d pick up kelp blade and show me little snail eggs – perfect concentric circles – and he would know what kind of snails they were. We knew that people would get hooked the same way we did.”


 As Monterey Bay Kayaks continues to grow, so does the marine recreation industry. With an ever-increasing demand to get on the water, Monterey Bay Kayaks are at the forefront of efforts to educate customers and protect the waters they tour.

 For their guided natural history tours, staff pair customers with well-trained guides who explain and model responsible behavior. The greatest challenges facing Monterey Bay Kayaks are international visitors and kayakers who opt to embark without a guide. Cass, who has continued to run the shops after Jeff’s passing in 2004, is continuously evolving their approach toward instilling these independent paddlers with a responsible ethic towards wildlife as they paddle unsupervised from the shop. In a multi-layered approach, paddlers will receive an initial orientation illustrated by innovative graphic signage, and be given a final reminder about wildlife etiquette by staff on the beach as they launch.

 When asked what strategy she feels would be most helpful in reaching the independent paddler, Cass said “they have to have a certain attitude before they even come to us. That’s something that’s totally out of our control. Our biggest success is when somebody already has the attitude: the ocean’s a dangerous place, I have to be respectful, marine mammals are protected and we shouldn’t disturb them.”

In 2016, Monterey Bay Kayaks was the first to test and apply Sea Otter Savvy’s waterproof decals to their entire fleet, to provide a final reminder to respect sea otters while paddling. The success of this interface with customers is dependent on the high caliber of Monterey Bay Kayaks’ staff, all of whom are carefully selected, trained and provided with continued education by Cass and biologists at their "sea otter sessions".  

Of all her accomplishments, Cass is most proud of her staff, “they are going to be our ambassadors. No matter what we tell customers, or what I put on the website or the sign, it’s people’s interaction with the staff, the guides, the person on the beach, that people are really going to remember.”

 Hopefully Sea Otter Savvy can make a difference in the awareness people already have about sea otters when they arrive at the doors of Monterey Bay Kayaks, but we are confident that Cass and the dedicated staff of Monterey Bay Kayaks will take it from there.

Staff members at the Monterey shop with some of Monterey Bay Kayaks' unique signageStaff members at the Monterey shop with some of Monterey Bay Kayaks' unique educational signage