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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

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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The Jetty Road Boys: Where Are They?

The Jetty Road Boys: Where Are They?
By Gena Bentall

The all male Jetty Road raft in Moss Landing harbor in January of 2018. Photo by Gena Bentall

The staff at Sea Otter Savvy love to answer questions about sea otters, and we get a lot of them through our website contact page and social media accounts. We have received a lot of questions about the “missing” sea otters of Moss Landing, enough to warrant a special blog.

The sea otters of the Jetty Road raft would sometimes haul out on the beach, especially at night. Photo by Gena BentallSea otters at Jetty Road would sometimes haul out on the beach, especially at night. Photo by Gena BentallMany have noticed that the iconic raft of bachelor male sea otters that was a predictable and charismatic feature of Moss Landing’s north harbor is absent. The numbers of sea otters in Moss Landing harbor has indeed changed. For decades, a male bachelor raft had a steady presence in the north harbor and was locally referred to as the "Jetty Road Raft" after a favorite nearby viewing spot for vistors and researchers. Sea otters group separately by sex, and male groups like this are a normal occurrence in all populations. In August of 2019 this raft suddenly dispersed and has not returned. The reason for this sudden dispersal is unknown but—as with any vanishing—there is no shortage of rumor and speculation by scientists, locals, and visitors. It is nearly impossible to conclude the cause of this dispersal definitively, but we can propose some possible causes based on our knowledge of sea otters and the characteristics of the location:

  1. Prey availability: with their record metabolisms, sea otter behavior is most strongly driven by the availability of prey. If food supply gets low, they must move on. Moss Landing/Elkhorn Slough is considered to be at sea otter carrying capacity (the maximum number resources can support), and a collapse of prey availability could trigger a sudden move.
  2. Male territorial behavior: Some males will hold territories within female areas and will actively repel other males. In a bachelor raft, territorial (aggressive) behavior is suspended, and males typically get along with one another. If one male "violates" this rule, his aggressive behavior may drive off other males.
  3. Predator avoidance: increased perceived predation risk could cause dispersal. Did a white shark enter the harbor? 
  4. Human disturbance: this raft was chronically exposed to marine recreation activities. I believe it is very unlikelythat this caused the dispersal of this raft which had co-existed with disturbance for decades.
  5. Other environmental factors: natural and human-generated toxins, pollution, etc. 

The current resident male rests in kelp near the Jetty Rd site. Photo by Gena BentallThe current resident male rests in kelp near the Jetty Rd site. Photo by Gena BentallIn my opinion, factors 2 and 1 are most likely, in that order. To bolster that conclusion, a single male sea otter has been present at the Jetty Rd. area since the dispersal. He appears to be repelling other males and behaving in every sense like a territorial male. Did we miss a hostel takeover? IS one male capable of persuading an entire habitual raft to move elsewhere?  Not even the most expert among us can say for sure.

Two important things to note: the males probably dispersed to other parts of Monterey Bay (there is no evidence to suspect mortality), and the female population in adjacent Elkhorn Slough has remained relatively stable. Unfortunately, in the intervening years since the dispersal occurred, only partial range-wide censuses have been completed (years 2020 [no census], 2021, 2022), in part due to the pandemic. Thus, an empirical accounting for the shift in sea otter distribution in the Monterey Bay area is not available to help clarify the story.

Despite the loss of the Jetty Road boys, Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough remain an essential habitat for southern sea otters, and maybe the bachelors will one day return.

Did this lone male drive off the Jetty Road raft? Photo by Gena Bentall February 2021

jetty rd el cajones wide 

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Finding Our Environmental Identity: the 7th California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium

Finding Our Environmental Identity

An overview of the 7th California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium

by Gena Bentall

On November 9th and 10th of 2021, people from across the United States—and even the planet—gathered to learn and share information about human-caused disturbance to coastal wildlife and be introduced to some of the innovative new strategies to mitigate it. As the world becomes increasingly aware of the ubiquity and costs of human disturbance to wildlife, mitigation measures have evolved and diversified. One of the objectives of this symposium is to showcase ideas and campaigns – successful or otherwise – to inspire creativity and strive for effectiveness, and this year’s event featured an agenda packed with impassioned and creative people and projects seeking to embody and inspire stewardship.

Co-organizer Cara O’Brien from California State Parks started out the morning leading a word cloud activity that queried attendees about wildlife disturbance witnessed in their everyday life (see results below). Since the earliest inception days of the Sea Otter Savvy program, there has been a shift in my awareness. As a sea otter biologist, I was acutely aware of human disturbance to sea otters – I could not avoid seeing it everyday and it impacted my work. In the ensuing years I’ve been on my own journey of awareness and now notice the disturbance I and others cause, not just to sea otters, but for the birds, reptiles, invertebrates, and even plants that coexist in my environment—my neighborhood.

symposium7 poll screenshot

Speaker Claudia Pineda Tibbs of Latino Outdoors, drew us in to that inclusive sense of place, home, and family in their talk about community representation in the outdoors and parks. Of all the concepts covered on the symposium’s first day, Claudia’s discussion of the relevance of each person’s “environmental identity” to their actions within and towards their environment, rang out as a clarion call to draw people from all communities to experience, love, and protect nature. How do you define your environmental identity? How does that identity influence your actions? Community wildlife stewardship begins with that kind of self-awareness in every person entering outdoor spaces.

Lisa Duba of Gigantic Idea Studio, introduced the first materials from the collaborative Respect Wildlife project and shared lessons learned from the launch of a series of humorous memes on the project’s new social media platforms. Respect Wildlife is one of two campaigns showcased on day 1 that offer copyright-free digital media packets that anyone can access, download, and share! Here's the Respect Wildlife media kit. Follow and tag @respectwildlifeproject on Instagram and Facebook! Grace Bottitta-Williamson also shared NOAA Sanctuary’s wonderful “Recreate Responsibly” campaign, that also has a copyright-free media packet to offer.

There were many inspiring stories of stewardship, ranging from the deep cultural and environmental ecology of the Tolowa Dee-ni to the day to day balancing of human activities and wildlife protection by the Morro Bay Harbor Department. From the turquoise waters of Indonesia, Dr. Maulita Sari Hani talked about her community’s efforts to make tourism safer for manta rays. Did you hear news about the disruption to elegant terns nesting at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Orange County? Melissa Loebl gave the inside story of that and other challenges she has faced in her first year overseeing one of the largest and most diverse ecosystems in Southern California. Spoiler: the terns found a new, rather awkward place to nest!

To reinforce our “give wildlife space” ethic, Dr. Mike Murray from the Monterey Bay Aquarium ticked down his list of zoonotic diseases (diseases and infections that are naturally transmitted between vertebrate animals and humans) in his talk, “Can marine mammals make me sick?  Marine mammals and zoonotic disease”. Take home message: DO NOT be tempted to kiss a sea lion. Also on the science and physiology front, we were surprised to learn from Dr. Mark Ditmer of the U.S. Forest Service how good bears are at hiding their stress.

Finishing up day 1, keynote speaker Dr. Kirsten Leong from NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center shared her insight on the importance of skills and disciplinary knowledge from fields such as human social psychology, communication, and interpretation to any wildlife protection strategy. Dr. Leong offered a couple of relevant quotes to illustrate this point (see below).

Image courtesy K. Leong, NOAA FisheriesImage courtesy K. Leong, NOAA Fisheries

The day 2 workshops were well attended this year, offering tips for interpretation of wildlife issues during the turbulent months of the pandemic. The master of nature interpretation, Jim Covel, also offered sage self-care advice to keep yourself and your messaging positive.  An all-star panel of social media leaders had advice and fielded questions from those bravely navigating the developing frontier of social media with wildlife conservation messaging.

At the end of the day, I felt encouraged and inspired, not only by our speakers and workshop hosts, but by the participation and dedication of attendees. We are all in this together, defining our environmental identity, seeking our “One Thing” (watch video below) and merging with our neighbors’ into a community wave of change.

Look for all of the talks and workshops from the 7th CA Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium coming soon on the Sea Otter Savvy YouTube channel. Be sure to subscribe!

Abstracts of symposium talks are available here.

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Sea Otters on the Island of Blue Dolphins, Part 4

Sea Otters on the Island of Blue Dolphins, Part 4

Read the first entries in this series, Sea Otters on the Island of the Blue Dolphins 1, 2 and 3 

 Sea otter scientists observe foraging sea otters on the teaming shores of San Nicolas Island, CA. Photo by G. Bentall

My eye is pressed to the rubber ring on the eyepiece of a telescope. I am waiting for a sea otter, one of 150 or so now living in the waters around San Nicolas Island, to surface from a foraging dive. My footing is weathered sandstone and my company, at the sea’s edge, a raucous, redolent spectacle of elephant seals, sea lions, cormorants, and brown pelicans fills my ears and nose. But it’s one sea otter—and the ring of bubbles where I expect her to surface— that holds my attention.

For a sea otter scientist making real-time foraging observations of wild sea otters on a remote island, larger-sized prey are always appreciated and are sometimes the source of jubilation. Large prey—big or bigger than the width of three sea otter paws (15 cm)—are easier to see, count and, most importantly, identify. But I venture most spotters would admit, whatever the species, large prey are a thrill to see as a sea otter first breaks the surface.

A foraging sea otter with a giant rock scallop meal (photographer unknown)So on this day on a rocky shore of San Nicolas Island—even though over twenty years having elapsed since my first observations of sea otter foraging—my awe is still fresh and bright when she surfaces with a giant bivalve between her paws. It is roughly the size of her head and looks every bit like an algae-crusted rock to the untrained eye. She hefts the closed shell and slams it down on a large, smooth rock on her belly. While cryptic in appearance, the large size, texture, and heft (as observers we can guess this by her effort in lifting and cracking it) are unmistakable. This is a giant rock scallop, Crassadoma giganteus, a massive bivalve that cements its right (lower) valve to the substrate as an adult. These giant scallops are aptly named as they can grow to a diameter of 25 centimeters. She will likely have found this living rock by probing crevices with her sensitive paws and whiskers. Once located these scallops (like their cousins the abalone) must be dislodged but, unlike abalone, they require more work at the surface before a meal is to be enjoyed.

sni 4 crassA living giant rock scallop (Crassadoma giganteus) attached to rock substrate. As I watch this female sea otter work to breach the shell, I use her paws to estimate the size of this prey and record this as a 4c—every bit of four “paw-widths” or 20 centimeters. Once opened, this is a substantial meal for her, and she gives me a flash of the white porcelain-like interior of the shell as she cleans away the last tidbits. Our data sheet shows that it has taken her six dives to dislodge and retrieve this scallop, and ten minutes to crack, open and eat it, after which she immediately dives to hunt for another. The hunger of sea otters is endless. 

This prey observation was exciting for reasons beyond the spectacle of it. In the days of my graduate research on the island back in 2003 and 2004 San Nic’s sea otters (affectionately, SNotters) retrieved a single species—specifically the red urchin, Mesocentrotus franciscanus—59% of their foraging dives and were part of a study of sea otter behavioral ecology that defined our understanding of the adaptability of sea otters to changing availability of their prey (link to PNAS paper). Sea otters were sparse at San Nic then and provided an opportunity for comparison to the much more crowded and long-established sea otters of the central California coast. One of their most prominent features in this study, was the lack of diversity in their diet, and this has become an earmark of a sea otter population living well below the habitat’s carrying capacity. Long-term research here provides an exciting opportunity to witness dietary diversification (OK, that’s jargon: different types and frequency of prey) as this insular population grows and adapts.

sni report fig6 croppedRelative sea otter density during 3 years of fall and spring surveys taken around San Nicolas Island, California, from A, 2014 through 2016; and B, 2017 through 2019. Relative densities were spatially modeled using kernel density methods on the cumulative sea otters counted per hectare across six surveys in each comparison period. Kelp canopy images taken during the fall of the 3 respective years are merged and displayed for reference. (Yee et al. 2020)The what, when, and how many of giant rock scallop prey are notable, but so too is the where. After decades of holding steady at the southwest end and south shore of the island, sea otters have begun to explore and settle new locations (Yee et al. 2020). As I stood upon this same rock on the island’s east end back in 2004, I often wished to see a raft of grizzled faces. Today my forager is one among forty or so resting, grooming, and foraging here. It inspires me in a way that appeases my disappointment over the stalled range expansion on California’s mainland (USGS Sothern Sea Otter Census Report 2019).

During three days spent perched here, I have observed only a handful of the red urchin prey once so common. At this new location the otters surprise me with lots of giant rock scallops, wavy turban snails, and even abalone. Also surprising is the frequency of their use of the rock tool during these foraging bouts, a behavior once not especially common for here compared to other California population (see Fujii et al. 2015). As our team scans the east end kelp with binoculars, it seems every other forager is banging away on a rock anvil.

Change and adaptation—whatever the time scale— are the essence of ecology and evolution. It is a privilege to witness the process unfolding in my lifetime, the island’s community rebuilding after an extinction like a microcosm of the history of the sea otter on a global scale. San Nicolas Island resonates with such stories—the fall and rise of the elephant seal, abalone, island fox, the tragic stories of Juana Maria and her Nicoleño family and ancestors. To stand on a rocky bluff watching a hungry sea otter contend with a scallop’s resistance to being eaten, is to be a character in the progression of all their stories.

Be a sea otter foraging scientist and watch this video by Marge Brigadier!

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