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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

shooting morro rock viewSea otters forage peacefully in the shadow of Morro Rock

This was supposed to be a story with a happy ending. In September of 2016, the community of Morro Bay was working together to assist with the rescue of a female sea otter that had been spotted in the bay with gaping wounds caused by entanglement with fishing line. The wounds were so obvious they could be seen from shore, kayak, or boat, and alerts were coming in to Morro Bay’s resident sea otter biologist, Mike Harris, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Harris had put the word out to locals who were on or near the water to keep an eye out and report sightings to him, so he could make an attempt to capture her and bring in for treatment. After several failed attempts at capture, the word about the injured sea otter had spread throughout the community and reports streamed in from local standup shooting line woundWounds from fishing line entanglement are visible on 741 following her capture for treatment. Photo by Mike Harrispaddleboard shops, volunteers from the local kayak-based SeaLife Stewards team, and private citizens. Finally, on September 12, Harris was alerted that the sea otter was spotted in open water inside the harbor. Transported to the location on one of the Morro Bay Harbor Patrol vessels, he was able to safely net her. Harris took the young female otter to the Marine Mammal Center, where veterinarian Dr. Heather Harris noted multiple wounds where the line cut deeply into the skin. After initial treatment, she was transported to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for further care. It is unlikely she would have survived these wounds without intervention.

Following more than 18 weeks of intensive care at the Aquarium (where she was known as otter 741), she was given brightly colored flipper tags to help spotters identify her at a distance, and declared healthy enough for release. On December 2, 2016, Mike Harris, and participants from the Marine Mammal Center and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, released 741 back to her home waters of Morro Bay. It was a moment to celebrate, not just one sea otter's recovery and freedom, but the valor of so many who helped her. 

741 was sighted resting in a common sea otter rafting spot in the bay near the base of Morro Rock for about a week after release. While Harris and local volunteers looked for her daily, she was not spotted again after that first week. Harris suspects she was there all along but had chewed off the plastic identifying tags on her hind flippers, and so became just one among those rafted in the kelp.

The participation of the community of Morro Bay in the rescue and rehabilitation of this sea otter, so grievously injured by the garbage we leave in our wake, was symbolic of a gentle tip of the scale of attitudes towards sea otters that has happened over the last decade in this small coastal town. Historically a thriving fishing community, Morro Bay has long had a segment of residents that actively revile sea otters as plunderers of coastal species and destroyers of fisheries. In recent years, the power of a healthy sea otter population to draw tourists to the bay has begun to turn the tide, and the city has embraced their presence in the harbor. Sea Otter Awareness Week has been declared and celebrated for two years running. The devotion of local volunteers with organizations like SeaLife Stewards, Sea Otter Experience, Sea Otter Savvy, and the Marine Mammal Center who give their time to promote sea otter awareness and conservation is truly inspiring.

While the balance of community opinion may have shifted in favor of sea otters, some still harbor anger, resentment, and hatred---perpetuating false claims of ecosystem shooting resight 741 raft741 (center) rafted with some of Morro Bay's sea otters following her rehabilitation and release. Photo by Mike Harrisdevastation and advocating for the persistence of a handful of fisheries over the rightful presence of sea otters in the waters from which they were once nearly extirpated.

I don’t know if it was this hatred or some other motivation that resulted in the tragic end to what was once an inspiring conservation story. On September 12, 2017, otter 741 was found floating dead in the waters of Morro Bay. Examination of her body revealed that she had died recently—within 12 hours or less— and had suffered a fatal pellet gun shot to the head. The location of the pellet in the back of her head, was consistent with a shot to to resting otter, as they typically sleep on their back, chin resting on their chest, with the back of their neck exposed. Given the fresh condition of her body, the incoming tides, and the location where she was found, Harris thinks it is possible she was resting peacefully in the kelp bed by Target Rock near the entrance to the harbor—perhaps among other sea otters— when she was shot. A female sea otter, who had been given a new lease on life through the intervention of humans, was now robbed of a life in the sea foraging for crabs, sleeping wrapped in kelp, and rearing the future generations of sea otters. This is the second sea otter killed by a pellet gun in the Morro Bay area in the last decade, with another gunshot otter recovered on Morro Strand in 2010. That crime has never been solved. Are the two incidents are related?

The monstrous murder of this sea otter begs for justice. I urge all the community members of Morro Bay who are part of that “turn of the tide” towards sea otter awareness and appreciation to be vigilant for clues that may lead to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator. The shooting occurred either early on the morning of September 12 or late the night before. The weapon was a pellet gun or air rifle, weapons which are becoming increasingly powerful. Have you overheard someone bragging about the shooting? Did you witness any suspicious behavior at that time?  If you have any information that may help solve this case, please call CalTIP at 888-334-2258 or via the CalTIP app.

Despite this tragedy, I have faith that our California communities are rich with people who respect their wildlife neighbors, give them voices when they need advocates, and aspire to a coastal community where predators like sea otters are valued and welcomed. I have no doubt where the tide is turning.

shooting target rock raftMorro Bay's sea otters peacefully resting near Target Rock

limerick winners 400x261 2First place winning Limerick by Laura Horton

In honor of Sea Otter Awareness Week and National Poetry Day, we are pleased to announce the winners of our Limerick Rhyme-fest! The top three winners received the highest scores from our Sea Otter Savvy judges. All three winning Limericks will be featured on new signs that will be installed at marine recreation access points in Moss Landing Harbor early next year. These Limericks were clever, adhered best to the meter and rhyme form of a Limerick, and conveyed the key guidelines as outlined in the instructions. We received over 60 entries and had a lot of fun reading all of them. A hearty giggle and a "Well done!" to all participants!

We are planning to make this contest an annual event, with new winning Limericks selected to keep the signs fresh and anticipation keen. Start thinking up your rhymes for next year!

Here are the winners. Enjoy!

First Place, by Laura Horton

Don’t paddle too close while we’re searchin’

For a crab or a tasty sea urchin.

Don’t land on our beach,

And stay well out of reach,

Or you’ll frighten us into submergin’.


Second Place, by Josh Silberg

When you’re out enjoying the water

Beware the inquisitive otter.

They might take a bite

Though not out of spite

Some just get more close than they ought'er


Third Place, Amanda Frederick

If you see sea otters at play,

Please stay a safe distance away.

No matter the cuteness

Please practice astuteness,

And don't to the Jetty Beach stray


Here are a few of our favorite Runners Up:

By Kyle Reynolds-

If you value your flesh you'll concede,

That our laws are for you to take heed,

Because otters get pissed

When you're up in their midst

And they know how to make paddlers bleed.


By Armen Varteressian-

If your family's out for a day

On the beautiful Monterey Bay

Tell your sons and your daughters

"Don't bother the otters -

They could hurt you just thinking it's play."


On otters and ferrets, and stoats

There are furry and fabulous coats

But while ferrets are pets

And stoats are no threat

It’s the otters who’ll chew up your boat

By Roxanne Varteressian Joe- 

There once was an otter named Jason,

And we know it’s tempting to chase him.

But please stay away,

Let him swim, dive and play.

Never get so close that you face him!

sos limerick 400

mossl boat launch signNOTE: This contest ended September 2017. Look for another contest in 2019!

Are you clever with a limerick? Do you want to be a hero for the sea otters of Moss Landing? Sea Otter Savvy is hosting a contest for the best limerick to feature our guidelines for savvy paddling in Moss Landing Harbor and Elkhorn Slough.  With the support of the Moss Landing Harbor District, we will be placing warning signs to remind paddlers that are launching from the North Harbor boat launch and nearby beach to observe the following guidelines for keeping both sea otters and humans safe:

  • Always stay at least 5 kayak lengths from sea otters
  • Disturbing sea otters is harmful and violates federal laws
  • Do not land on the beach opposite this launching area
  • Avoid overly curious sea otters. They may bite!

The winning limerick will best encapsulate these guidelines within a traditional limerick scheme. A limerick is a poetic form composed of one stanza with five lines and a rhyme scheme of “AABBA” that usually is humorous. Here’s an example:

As you paddle today up the slough,

Keep in mind these 3 things you must do:

Give sea otters some space,

Know they may bite your face,

And Jetty Beach landings won’t do

To facilitate creativity and insure clarity, the guidelines will be included as written above at the bottom of the final sign. While offcolor limericks may entertain the judges, they will not be considered for the contest. A panel of Sea Otter Savvy advisers will review and choose the winner. The winning limerick will be featured on three signs to be placed at key watercraft access points in the North Harbor. Submit your entry through Sea Otter Savvy’s Facebook Messenger, or via email to with “Sea Otter Savvy Limerick Contest” in the subject line. Entries must be received by midnight, September 15, 2017 to be considered. Get out and rhyme!

mbk level 1 larochephoto by Nicole LaRoche

gena cal poly team 400Sea Otter Savvy Program Coordinator Gena Bentall works with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students to collect data on human-caused disturbance to sea otters

On August 10, 2017, Sea Otter Savvy celebrates our 2nd birthday! In August of 2015, we embarked on a mission not only to prevent human-caused disturbance and harassment of sea otters, but foster community awareness about their impact on wildlife and enlist community help in achieving our goals. This collaborative program has truly found its strength in the combined skills, experience, innovation, and savviness of many.

Some of our highlights from the last 2 years:

Collaborators: Seabird Protection Network, California State Parks, NOAA-Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Monterey Bay Aquarium, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Friends of the Sea Otter

  • We delivered kayak-adherent “Be Sea Otter Savvy” decals to most kayak rental businesses in Moss Landing, Monterey, and Morro Bay. Over 1500 decals have been distributed and applied to kayaks.
  • We worked with California State Parks, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Monterey Bay Aquarium, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and to close an important sea otter haul out beach in Moss Landing Harbor to human traffic. This measure has reduced disturbance to hauled-out sea otters to virtually nil.
  • Sea Otter Savvy participated in the effort to install traffic calming measures at two locations where sea otters cross busy roads in Moss Landing. Monterey County Public Works, Local citizen scientist Ron Eby, and Moss Landing residents Jamie and Andrew Jarrad have been, and continue to be, important collaborators on this ongoing project to safeguard sea otter travel corridors.
  • ask me 3001We are so proud of our citizen science data collection team, who has recorded more than 800 hours of data on sea otter activity relative to human activities ranging from kayaks and ecotour boats to drones and kids throwing rocks at locations in Moss Landing, Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Morro Bay.  As a result of their hard work and dedication (and the powerhouse statistical modelling coming from the UC Santa Cruz laboratory of Dr. Tim Tinker) we can share that we have recorded a decreasing level of disturbance to sea otters by human activities over the last 2 years. We can’t definitively take credit for this trend but we are happy to see it and hope it continues!


di trend chart 400x279Figure showing average disturbance across all Central California study sites for program quarters: winter of 2015 (2015-1)-winter 2017 (2017-1). Red bars indicate data collected prior to launch of outreach program. The disturbance index is based on Sea Otter Savvy sampling data. Black dotted line indicates linear trend in the disturbance index across quarters.

Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to keep up with all of our activities, programs and events. Explore this website to learn more about sea otters and how and why we should protect them. Thanks to all our supporters and collaborators who helped make this program not only savvier, but more effective. I am looking forward to our next 2 years! Read more about the team behind Sea Otter Savvy and our collaborators and supporters on our Our Team page.

                         — Gena Bentall, Sea Otter Savvy Program Coordinator