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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

By guest writer Scott Kathey, Federal Regulatory Coordinator, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaryscott kathy kayaker otter 400x267

The southern sea otter is protected under federal laws as both a marine mammal and a threatened species. Sea otters don’t have a blubber layer like seals and must consume up to one quarter of their body weight a day to stay warm in the frigid waters of central California. When they’re not feeding to maintain their high metabolism, they are sleeping to recharge from all the hard work of foraging. These critical life patterns are easily disrupted by human presence. In popular recreation areas, such disturbances can occur repeatedly throughout the day.

Just as repeated interruption of a person’s sleep and meals day-after-day can lead to increased stress and sickness in humans, it has the same effect on sea otters. But unlike humans, sea otters live on a narrow margin of survival in harsh ocean conditions. Your interruption of sea otters’ routines—compounded by disturbance from other sources—can lead to severe fatigue, malnourishment, physiological stress, a weakened immune system, disease, and finally death. But anxious spectators will never see their part in this tragic sequence of events. They will simply be satisfied that they captured the close-up photos they wanted for their scrapbook or social media page. The otter they leave behind will have to contend with hundreds more such encounters a month—trying to survive heavy seas, sharks, shifting food resources, pollutants, and disease while being repeatedly pursued by boaters, kayakers, paddle boarders, beachgoers, and now, aerial drones.

For these reasons, the U.S. Government has protected sea otters under several federal laws. That protection includes a prohibition against disturbing sea otters by causing them to change their normal behavior in any way. The simple act of causing a resting otter to turn its face toward you is considered “harassment” under the law.

Many people do things purposely to attract an otter’s attention. They equate an otter’s gaze with that of their pet at home, mistakenly thinking that the otter somehow likes their attention. It does not. It’s actually on high alert, planning its next move should the spectator approach closer. When an otter raises its head up to get a better view, it is not curious or eager to meet the onlooker - it is carefully evaluating what it perceives as “a potential threat”. Its heart rate quickens and its body produces adrenaline that drains valuable energy it needs to survive. If the threat moves away, it takes an otter about 15 minutes to resume what it was doing before the disturbance—just enough time for the next person to come along. If the threat moves closer, then the effects of the disturbance intensify even more.

Sea otter observers should closely watch otter reactions as they approach otters from a distance. Observers should begin focusing on an otter’s behavior when 50 yards away. Observers should NEVER surround an otter or approach an otter by paddling or walking directly toward the animal. Instead, they should choose a diagonal path to the side of the animal. If at any time an otter turns its face toward observers, they should immediately stop, approach no closer, and may need to move further away. Even if otters don’t react to observer presence, observers should NEVER approach otters closer than 50 feet.
Remember: “Be on guard at 50 yards, and do not sneak past 50 feet.

If you witness sea otter disturbance in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary that you think should be reported, you can help by collecting as much detailed information about the incident and people causing the disturbance as possible. If you can quietly capture video or photos of the disturbance without alerting the person(s) causing the disturbance, such records can be very helpful to subsequent enforcement efforts. You can report marine mammal disturbance incidents to the NOAA Enforcement Hotline anytime at 1-800-853-1964. But it’s best to report problems as soon as possible. The sanctuary’s website offers helpful reporting contacts and reporting tips.

scott kathey portrait 300x225Scott Kathey at work in the Monterey Bay National Marine SanctuaryFederal penalties for harassing sea otters can range from hundreds of dollars in fines to criminal prosecution, depending on the circumstances. But random enforcement actions can’t repair the avoidable and unnecessary damage caused by many people. It’s critical that the public help protect these magnificent wild animals by voluntarily watching them from a respectful distance and allowing them room to survive and thrive.

hbarrett otter tracking 400x300Moss Landing Marine Laboratories' graduate student Heather Barrett spotting sea otters 

Guest writer and graduate student, Heather Barrett, introduces a new collaboration between Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, UC Santa Cruz, and Sea Otter Savvy studying the effect of human-caused disturbance on sea otters living in and around Monterey Bay. 

The crisp morning begins with stretches, a barrel role here and there, and one of the members breaking off to search for a crab breakfast. The raft bobs as the distant boat wake lifts each otter in a wave; rocking them gently in a water cradle. There are five mothers with cotton-ball pups that begin the tedious nursing and grooming process, lifting the plush bodies and breathing warm air in to their Einstein frizz. But the calm morning routines will soon be disrupted and turn to disorder. The bright colored beasts have arrived, aiming the kayak bows towards the otter raft, paddles drumming as they hit the surface of the water.

jetty raft 2 kayaks 300x221Kayakers approach a sea otter raft in Moss Landing, CAMost human disturbance is unintentional. However, this naiveté does not eliminate the potential behavioral or physiological consequences for wildlife. Simply our presence, especially when too close, can impact certain species by initiating a stress response. Stress hormones release, causing an increase in heart rate, rise in blood pressure, suppression of feeding and reproduction, and modulation of immune function 1. This is critical in acute stress response, for it allows for a quick reaction during a potentially threatening situation. But what if this becomes chronic?

Chronic stress leads to prolonged exposure to these stress hormones, which can cause muscle wasting, bone thinning, reproductive failure, and immune deficiency 1. These physiological responses are usually undetected in wildlife, which can portray a false sense of acceptability for disturbance 2. Behavioral responses tend to be clearer since they are visually detectable. Individuals will become alert, move away, and show avoidance or even aggression 3. All which have an energetic cost. With these varying responses, why is disturbance particularly a concern for sea otters?

As a keystone species, sea otters have a disproportionate effect on their surrounding environment, enhancing local biodiversity 4. They exhibit this strong influence on their coastal community through their voracious appetite, controlling grazer populations 4. With little fat storage and only dense fur to keep warm, sea otters use their high metabolic rate to maintain their internal temperature in a cold marine environment. Since they use energy to keep warm, they must consume a quarter of their body weight in food each day to fuel this heat production 5.

So picture an exhausted sea otter mother: using energy for lactation, heat production, foraging, and pup care; imagine what it would be like to have constant disturbance from people recreating in the bay. If already living near physiological limits, what is the energetic consequence when human disturbance increases the cost? To answer this, it is important to understand the types of disturbance and create a baseline of behavioral response.

hbarrett jetty rdHeather monitoring the bachelor raft in Moss LandingSea Otter Savvy is spearheading the sea otter disturbance data collection with citizen science and educating the public through outreach programs. As a graduate student at Moss Landing Marine laboratories, I am thrilled to participant in the data collection and honored to use this information. I will couple this with the previously collected metabolic data from University of California Santa Cruz5,6 to investigate the energetic cost of disturbance of sea otters in Monterey Bay. This unique collaboration, and inclusion of graduate research, benefits the scientific community, the public, and can provide information to agencies making wildlife policy and management decisions.

If you are interested in learning more about Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, please visit the website:
You are also encouraged to visit the Laboratories’ Open House this weekend April 29th and 30th. Come experience marine science and hear about the graduate student projects! 

1. Hill, R.W., Wyse, G.A., Anderson, M. and Anderson, M., 2004. Animal physiology (Vol.2). Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates.
2. Sorice, M.G., Shafer, C.S. and Scott, D., 2003. Managing endangered species within the use/preservation paradox: understanding and defining harassment of the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). Coastal Management, 31(4), pp.319-338
3. Gill, J.A., Sutherland, W.J. and Watkinson, A.R., 1996. A method to quantify the effects of human disturbance on animal populations. Journal of appliedEcology,pp.786-792.
4. Estes, J.A. and Palmisano, J.F., 1974. Sea otters: their role in structuring nearshore communities. Science, 185(4156), pp.1058-1060.
5. Thometz, N.M., Tinker, M.T., Staedler, M.M., Mayer, K.A. and Williams, T.M., 2014. Energetic demands of immature sea otters from birth to weaning: implications for maternal costs, reproductive behavior and population-level.
6. Yeates, L.C., Williams, T.M. and Fink, T.L., 2007. Diving and foraging energetics of the smallest marine mammal, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Journal of Experimental Biology, 210(11), pp.1960-1970.



A sea otter crossing Jetty Road in Moss Landing. Photo by Natsuko FujimotoA sea otter crossing Jetty Road in Moss Landing. Photo by Natsuko Fujimoto

A car would, at first thought, seem an unlikely hazard for a marine mammal. In our desire for access to the once rugged, wild places near the ocean, we have made a formidable foe of our vehicles for some of the sea-going mammals that spend time on the shore. Sea lions, elephant seals, and yes, a much-loved sea otter, have met their death in encounters with vehicles. Why did the sea otter cross the road? The answer to this iconic children's riddle, "To get to the other side" is the truth, in part. A sea otter might cross the road to get to the other side, where some needed resource—prey, mates, a safe place to rest—beckons with enough urgency to draw a heavy weasel, built for a life in the sea, to find its land legs.

In the coastal town of Moss Landing, California, there are two places where sea otters are known to venture onto and across paved roads to travel between resources. At both locations, sea otters are able to cross from one side to the other via man-made tidal culverts that pass beneath the roadway, but some circumstances---very low tides, rushing currents, or the tide-regulated closure of culvert gates---may force the otter to resort to crossing the road to return to a resting spot or to get access to a foraging area. 

otter forage moro cojoSea otter foraging on clams in Moro-Cojo Slough Along a narrow section of Jetty Road near the entrance to Moss Landing State Beach, sea otters have long been observed crossing between the north harbor and the neighboring Bennett Slough, where a small number find habitat for foraging and resting. Opportunistic observations by sea otter biologists indicate that during ebb tides, when the current is too strong for a sea otter to swim successfully against it through the culverts, and low tides, when the culverts contain little or no water, a sea otter may cross on the road, where they are at risk of being struck by passing vehicles. There is also evidence that they cross during high, or even King Tide conditions, so it is clear more research is needed to better understand road crossing behavior. This uncertainty need not preclude action.  Recently sea otter researcher Natalie Uomini captured footage of a sea otter crossing Jetty Road. This dramatic video underscores how a split second may mean the difference between a dead or injured sea otter and one safely at home in the slough. Slow and vigilant driving is essential for preventing a tragedy. 

flicker vidVideo by Natalie Uomini

jetty crossing sign 400Sea otter crossing sign at Jetty Road in Moss LandingIn July of 2016, a male sea otter famous for making his home in the south harbor of Moss Landing, near the popular Whole Enchilada restaurant, was struck and killed on Moss Landing Road by a vehicle. He had been returning to the harbor after a nighttime foraging bout in Moro-Cojo Slough. The tragic death of "Mr. Enchilada" prompted management authorities and the local community to come together to take steps to prevent a reoccurrence. Monterey County Public Works instituted a speed limit reduction at the Moss Landing Road crossing and placed signs warning drivers of sea otter crossing activity. They were the first traffic signs of their kind, and the image of a walking sea otter had to be custom-designed. A few months later, in response to concerns that traffic had been little slowed by the signs, Public Works installed a well-marked speed table. The worldwide first of a sea otter crosswalk attracted media interest and garnered praise for Public Works. The Jetty Road crossing, which is under the jurisdiction of California State Parks, is now also marked by signs, and additional measures to reduce vehicle speed were recently installed under a grant from the California State Coastal Conservancy CA Sea Otter Fund.

moss speed table 400x400Speed table at Moss Landing Road

We have dissected so many wild places with our roads, with little consideration for the less visible trails and pathways made by our non-human neighbors. In the case of sea otters, warning drivers and slowing the vehicles on the road surface seem like a minimum first step. The best solution would be to keep them off the roadways entirely by making space for travel corridors beneath. This next step will require research on sea otter crossing behavior, well-informed design, public will, and significant funding—but considering the ecological and financial rewards that sea otters bring to our communities, isn’t it only right that we help sea otters find safe passage through our road infrastructure as they travel their own pathways to the places where they forage and rest? 

Many agenecies, organizations, and community members work together to continue to make the roads of Moss Landingsafe for sea otters. Along with Monterey County Public Works, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, CA Department of Fish and Wildlife, Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, California State Parks, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Moss Landing residents, Defenders of Wildlife, and Sea Otter Savvy are all insturmntal in the Sea Otter Xing (SOX) project. You can do your part by slowing down at SOXs and driving with caution anywhere wildlife must cross roads. 

 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 or follow @ecoexposurephotography on Instagram and Facebook 

Photographer resting jt 1000