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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

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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Ecosystem Mosaic: Sea Otter Awareness Week 2021

Sea Otter Awareness Week 2021

Photo by Jeff & Wendy Photography

Photo of a mother sea otter wrapped in kelp with her pup by Jeff & Wendy Photography.

Annually, throughout the last week of September, we celebrate sea otters during Sea Otter Awareness Week. We encourage zoological and educational institutions, governmental agencies and communities to plan and undertake events that highlight sea otters. These activities include 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.

This year's Sea Otter Awareness Week's theme, Ecosystem Mosaic, follows the idea of the sea otter’s ecosystem as a mosaic of tiny parts in which the removal of key elements or damage to the system’s structure renders the ecological picture incomplete. 

SOAW fullLogo design by Heather BarrettThe Ecosystem Mosaic theme was inspired by groundbreaking research published by a collaborative of scientists from University of California Santa Cruz, the Western Ecological Research Center of the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2021. This large-scale study examined ecosystem complexity revealed by the catastrophic loss of an important kelp forest predator -- the sunflower star. The sudden shift in the web of organisms uncovered new insights into the functional role of sea ottes in California kelp ecosystems. Dr. Joshua Smith, the lead author of this study, will be a featured speaker leading off the week's exciting agenda of events.

A mosaic relies on each piece of tile to contribute to a complete image. Similarly, a thousand tiny elements must coexist to form an ecosystem. Removing pieces from a mosaic equates to losing vital components of an ecosystem. As more parts are removed, the value of the art or the ecosystem diminishes.

Sea Otter Viewing Stations

Throughout Sea Otter Awareness Week 2021 (September 19-25) you can meet volunteers from SeaLife Stewards, Sea Otter Savvy, California State Parks, the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, Defenders of Wildlife, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Santa Cruz Museum of NAtural History, and the Morro Bay State Park Museum 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 help you be expert otter spotters with binoculars and spotting scopes, answer your sea otter questions, and share how you can help protect sea otters! 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. 

Highlights of Sea Otter Awareness Week 2021

For a full list of the week's events, visit the Defenders of Wildlife Sea Otter Awareness Week page.

Float Down the Coast Livestream

Tuesday, September 21, 2021, 12:00pm - 1:00pm

Sea otter experts will report live from as far north as Washington or British Columbia and all along the California coast south to Baja to share some science and stories about sea otters. 

Look for this livestream on Sea Otter Savvy and CA State Parks' YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. 

T-shirt fundraiser

Show off you sea otter awareness and support our cause by purchasing a t-shirt featuring the Ecosystem Mosaic logo! 

Fundraiser auction on eBay: Ecosystem Mosaic

Bid to win an original mosaic art piece by New World Mosaic's Juan Lopez. This peice was inspired by this year's logo and was custom made to commemorate the them of "Ecosystem Mosaic". Bidding on this striking art work will begin on September 19th and will run for 10 days. All proceeds will go to support Sea Otter Savvy in our mission to inspire stewardship of sea otters. 

Make your Ecosystem Mosaic!

Show us your creative side by entering the Ecosystem Mosaic Challenge! Download the template, follow the directions (be creative!), and share your masterpiece with @seaottersavvy in Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube. 

Ecosystem Mosaic Challenge template and instructions

We Were Here Events

wwh 1Look for the tag #WeWereHere for events that are part of our We Were Here sea otter program.

The goal of the We Were Here campaign is to educate the public and stakeholders in the San Francisco, Northern California regions about the historical role of sea otters and their potential value to northern California ecosystems. With the focus of southern sea otter conservation and recovery efforts increasingly focused on population expansion beyond the current range limits, it is vital to start instilling a sense of stewardship and a desire for coexistence among coastal communities where sea otters may soon appear.

Visit the We Were Here page and take the survey to share your opinion about reintroduction as a strategy to reestablish sea otters in their historical range. 

The Sea Otter Awareness Week Planning Team


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Winning Wildlife Storytellers

Our Winning Wildlife Storytellers

Wildlife Storytellers First place winner, Respect the Nap, by Allison Gregor

The mission of the Wildlife Storytellers Photo Contest is to promote photography as a medium for sharing stories about the deep relationships between organisms and the places they live. More than portraits of individual species, winning photos will tell a story about the relationship between a species within the context of the habitat it lives in, to inspire a deeper awareness and appreciation for the conservation of intact ecosystems and biodiversity. We aim to transform this aspiration for eye contact portraits to those that celebrate ecosystems and capture meaningful images that tell the stories of animal life in wild places.

We’d like to congratulate the winners of this year’s Wildlife Storytellers contest and thank all of the participating photographers. We received excellent entries that promoted our mission for ethical wildlife photography while emphasizing ecological storytelling. We hope you enjoy the winning photographs and their unique stories.

First Place:  Allison Gregor with ‘Respect the Nap’

Southern sea otter, taken from a quiet nursery viewing area in Morro Bay approximately 30 ft onshore behind a barrier fence. Canon 7Dii at 600mm (equiv. to 960mm focal length), photo not cropped, Dec 25, 2019Southern sea otter, taken from a quiet nursery viewing area in Morro Bay approximately 30 ft onshore behind a barrier fence. Canon 7Dii at 600mm (equiv. to 960mm focal length), photo not cropped, Dec 25, 2019

On a visit to Morro Bay last year, I came across an area known to locals as "the nursery", a quiet area for groups of sea otter moms to sleep, eat and teach their pups the ways of the world. I have spent countless hours watching the interactions between mom and pup at that location. Sea otter moms rule!

After sea otters give birth at sea they become 24/7 caregivers over the next 6-8 months. Along the way, mom will teach her pup how to swim, maintain its fur and eventually how to forage for its food. Sea otter moms will have been pushed to their absolute limits by the time the pup is old enough to be fully independent. 

Did you know that non-nursing sea otters have to eat roughly 25% of their body weight per day? They have huge energetic requirements and need to consume large amounts of food. Unlike most marine mammals, sea otters do not have layers of blubber instead relying on their thick fur to stay warm. A lot of energy is used to maintain their fur as well as foraging for food. If they are nursing or caring for a pup, even more energy is needed and their daily food requirement can be twice as much as those without pups. Some sea otter moms can spend up to 14 hours per day foraging!

So, whenever you see sleeping sea otters, think of all they need to do to care for their pups. Any disturbance to their sleep can be detrimental, not only to the mom but to her pup as well. 

                                                        — Allison Gregor

Runner Up: Kathleen Curtis with ‘Panic of the King Tide’

Photo taken at 300+ meters with a Canon EOS Rebel T6S using a 210 mm telephoto lens. Photo taken at 300+ meters with a Canon EOS Rebel T6S using a 210 mm telephoto lens.

This photograph was taken at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, in San Simeon, CA in January 2019 during the King Tide-the highest tide of the year. This unfortunately coincided with a strong Pacific storm, covering the beach in surf. In this image, new born elephant seal pups are struggling to stay on the beach, while the raging surf pulls them out to sea. These young pups do not yet know how to swim and their blubber layer is insufficient for the cold water. This image captures their brave struggle to survive.

— Kathleen Curtis

Honorable Mention: Sharon Hsu with ‘Mom’s Home’

Moss Landing, CA, Canon EOS 7D, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-4.5L IS USMoss Landing, CA, Canon EOS 7D, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-4.5L IS US

A snowy plover makes its way back to her nest to incubate her eggs. One of the last nests of yet another difficult breeding season for these small shorebirds, extra efforts were made by conservationists to protect this particular nest. The breeding pair may have been first time breeders, as the nest was constructed in an exposed area of the beach, and unfortunately, a week after this photo was taken, the eggs were swept away by an unusually high tide. 

— Sharon Hsu

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Wildlife Disturbance Symposium 2020: Reflections

The California Coastal Wildlife Distubance Symposium 2020: Reflections from attendees

By Jeff Torquemada and Wendy Sparks

What an exhilarating experience to spend two days with people who have a common passion ─ protecting coastal wildlife and their habitat. This statement, “ It is important to pair knowledge with emotional appeal” encapsulates so much of what was shared during the symposium and it served as the springboard for participants to generate creative ideas to promote and provide awareness and education to the public regarding best practices while visiting coastal wild places.

Participants in one of the 6th CA Coastal Wildlife Disturbance workshop groupsParticipants in one of the 6th CA Coastal Wildlife Disturbance workshop groups

It has become quite evident COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the number of people spending more time outdoors. They are “over-loving” national parks, state parks and coastal marine sanctuaries. In his presentation, State Parks Ranger Robb Mullins shared a number of dramatic examples demonstrating an increase in the number of poaching incidents of plant life and mollusks. The challenge for law enforcement is when to use the “spirit of the law” rather than the “letter of the law”.

Tidepool wildlife is being harassed and some people are doing dangerous and disrespectful stunts involving wildlife just to be a social media sensation. There is a need to “one up” one another on social media, which drives people to push beyond ethical limits to post a photo. This is also one of the causes of “bad behavior” in our parks, sanctuaries and reserves.

Can we use social media as a positive tool? There are Instagram accounts with huge followings such as the kayak fishing for beginner’s account. Messages regarding ethical practices could be posted on these types of sites and reach a larger and more diverse population. Getting a celebrity involved in awareness messages via social media would also reach far more people.

The ongoing problem of getting too close to marine mammals continues to be a challenge, but the collaborative efforts of local kayak and paddleboard businesses working in conjunction with Sea Otter Savvy has had a very favorable impact ─ gotta love those important baby steps!

shhh morro bay 500Simple signage in Morro Bay, CAIt was agreed, too many signs may cause sensory overload. However, visuals like the “Respect the Nap” plaque with the image of the sleeping sea otter makes a powerful statement with very few words. We actually have witnessed people viewing sea otters and then discussing that very powerful message. In Alaska we learned, there are signs educating boaters to give whales space. The simple statements, “Give Whales Bubble Room!” and “Don’t Burst My Bubble” educates with a touch of humor.

Two of our favorite presentations were Dr. Megan McKenna’s presentation on integrating sensory ecology into conservation. We know the animals returned to the Yosemite Valley during COVID-19  due the absence of humans and all noise we create!  Stanford University’s J P Spaventa’s presentation on testing sea otter responses to UAV’s was truly cutting-edge technology and would make data gathering more efficient and less stressful on wildlife.

Perhaps the most powerful discussion was recognizing that scolding people, who were doing something unethical, only has a short-term impact and most likely will not change that individual’s behavior. The two of us are guilty of admonishing a couple who was attempting to photograph a bobcat with an iPhone, while constantly yelling “Here, kitty kitty” every time the poor bobcat was ready to pounce and catch his next meal. Yes, we did go a bit “COVID Crazy” and the people did leave, but we should have walked over and explained to them they were interfering with an animal’s efforts to survive-it was a teachable moment and we blew it! We must remind ourselves to be ambassadors.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs should serve as our guiding foundation as we work together to effectively bring about change. We want to plant seeds of awareness that touch upon people’s core beliefs or educate them in such a way our messages become their core beliefs.  Humor is a great tool to share an important message ─ the Respect the Tidepools from song is a perfect example of using humor, great visuals and a catchy tune to teach children how to safely and respectfully explore tidepools. These creative approaches to educate children about marine sanctuary awareness should be an integral part of the elementary school science curriculum. Children often teach adults valuable lessons about ethical behavior.

The quote below reflects the combined power and creative energy of the attendees at the Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium. We are honored to have been part of this think tank.

“Never doubt that of a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

                                                      -Margaret Mead

Jeff & Wendy

From the editor:

Videos of all the 6th California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium presentations can be viewed on the Sea Otter Savvy YouTube Channel.

Check out the resources pinned to the virtual bulletin board "Gallery of Ideas"! You can find absracts of presentations, review the agenda, and see videos, oureach materials, research articles and more, shared by symposium panelists and attendees. 

Read about past symposia:

4th Annual in 2018

5th Annual in 2019

Jeff and Wendy at workAbout the authors:

Jeff Torquemada and Wendy Sparks, aka Jeff and Wendy Photogrpahy, are passionate about preserving all things wild and through the medium of photography and have spent over 40 years and thousands of hours observing and photographing animals-always waiting to capture that perfect light! All of the animals in their photographs are taken in their natural habitat; they do not bait nor risk compromising the welfare of an animal just to capture an image.

Learn more about them by reading their blog on the ethics of photographing sea otters.

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