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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

A Pioneer of Sea Otter Science Remembered: Jack Ames

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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What has Become of Friends of the Sea Otter?

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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Path to Coexistence: the 20th Sea Otter Awareness Week

Path to Coexistence: the 20th Sea Otter Awareness Week

A young boy discovers his path to coexistence with sea otters in Morro Bay, CA. Photo by Gena Bentall

Each year for two decades, throughout the last week of September, zoological and educational institutions, governmental agencies, and communities plan and undertake events that celebrate sea otters.

You can watch the Sea Otter Awareness Week 2022 Presenations here.

Sea Otter Awareness Week is about sharing stories, disseminating science, and generating media that inspire a deeper awareness of these unique marine mammals, their ecological importance and the many challenges they face. Sea otters bring vitality, resilience, and diversity to nearshore habitats, such as kelp forests and estuaries. A struggling sea otter population often signals imbalances within those habitats.

Sea Otter Savvy and our partners at Defenders of Wildlife are excited by the passage of a resolution in the California Legislature recognizing the 20th anniversary of Sea Otter Awareness Week. Assembly Concurrent Resolution 169 (ACR 169), authored and introduced by California Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-29) and coauthored by state Senator John Laird (D-17), highlights two decades of collaboration by numerous nonprofit organizations and state and federal agencies in support of sea otter conservation and coastal habitat protection. In 2022, Sea Otter Awareness Week will run September 18-24.

FINAL SOAW LOGO2.0This year’s theme for the week is “Path to Coexistence” ―celebrating both the recovery of sea otters to places where they were once extirpated by the Maritime Fur Trade of the 18th and 19th centuries and the growing efforts by communities to support sea otter recovery and promote coexistence. The 2022 logo, designed by Sea Otter Savvy’s own Heather Barrett, challenges us to identify the many components of the world of a sea otter mom and her pup―can you find them all? Do you see yourself in her world? What can you do on your “path to coexistence” to make the world safer and more peaceful for sea otters?

Try out our Coexistence Image Search puzzle here or click logo at right.

 “As they recover from near extinction at our hands, it is time to redefine our coexistence with sea otters. A new paradigm that is founded not just in sea otters adapting to us, but a mutual coexistence that grows from awareness and respect. This is the essence of Sea Otter Awareness Week for me.”    - Gena Bentall, Director of Sea Otter Savvy

Follow along with Sea Otter Savvy and the many partners and participants of the 20th Sea Otter Awareness Week as we promote events, presentations, in-person viewing stations (see the map below), and a raft-load more. Don't miss exploring the world of sea otters from Alaska to San Nicolas Island in the unique live-streamed event  "Float Down the Coast with Sea Otters" (September 21 at noon on our YouTube channel), and follow every day of our  “7 Days of Sea Otter Savvy” on our social media to take a quiz and earn a chance at a prize at week's end! Many events have a special connection with our We Were Here program, so look for the We Were Here logo and share your voice about sea otter recovery in the stakeholder survey

Head to Sea Otter Awareness Week headquarters at Defenders of Wildlife for a full schedule.

Sea Otter Viewing and Information Stations

guidelines girlThroughout Sea Otter Awareness Week 2022 (September 18-24) you can meet volunteers from SeaLife Stewards, Sea Otter Savvy, California State Parks, California Department of Fish & Wildlife,  Defenders of Wildlife, and the Santa Cruz, Pacific Grove, and  Morro Bay State Park Museums of Natural History to learn about sea otters and experience wild sea otters from the best viewing locations in California. Volunteers will be ready to transform you into 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. 



Spotlight on the Pioneer of Sea Otter Awareness Week

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis year, as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Sea Otter Awareness Week, we are proud to carry on the legacy of its founder and creator, Jim Curland. Working at Defenders of Wildlife as their Marine Program Associate from 2001 – 2011, Jim was asked to come up with “something special” for the sea otter, a threatened species Defenders of Wildlife works to protect. Jim began partnering with educational facilities, non-governmental organizations, zoos and aquaria in California and eventually in other states and countries to develop the first ever species awareness program. It evolved into a week-long event educating people about sea otters with scientific talks by researchers, special presentations at aquaria with sea otter exhibits, and teaching programs in school classrooms about the otter’s threatened status, natural history and ecology. Eventually Jim garnered proclamations from a number of cities declaring that the last full week in September each year would become “Sea Otter Awareness Week.”  Additionally, Jim helped get legislation passed in the state of California recognizing this event. Jim, along with volunteer Judy Proud, and other sea otter partners established this annual event that is now 20 years strong and still bringing awareness to these unique marine mammals and the challenges they face.

Read more about Jim and his research here.

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Carve a Sea Otter Jack-o-Lantern

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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