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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

Sea Otters on the Island of Blue Dolphins, Part 2

sni raft ottersA rare photo of a raft of sea otters at the remote San Nicolas Island, CA

By Gena Bentall

Read Part 1 of this series.

rock crusher fog 350x263    Fog blankets the shore and sleepy elephant seals at San Nicolas IslandThe San Nicolas Island sea otter research team drives down the winding road to the beach aptly called Rock Crusher to take a first look for sea otters. Rock Crusher, at the southwest end of the island, is known for pounding surf, otherworldly rock formations, northern elephant seals and the most likely place to find the sea otters of San Nicolas. The kelp beds here can extend from shore out 2 kilometers, forming optimal habitat for a growing sea otter population. On this first day of our survey, however, few of those features are visible in the dense fog that rests heavily on the water. The winds have calmed, the air is still, and the marine layer settles in. Only the closest rocks and resting elephant seals are visible. Beyond that, all fades to pearly grey. For today, San Nicolas will keep his secrets hidden in the mist.


San Nicolas Island sea otter counters hits the trails with their Questar telescopesSan Nicolas Island sea otter counters hit the trails with their Questar telescopesAfter a good night’s sleep, we are all up at dawn to check the weather and plan for the day. From our quarters on an island plateau a wispy crown of fog is visible, hinting that viewing may still be obscured. The oversight of the San Nicolas Island sea otter census has been the responsibility of Brian Hatfield of the US Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center for 30 years. As expected, he assigns each team member a section of the rugged coastline, dividing the island neatly into uneven quarters: the southeast side, the southwest side, the north side, and the offshore reef known as The Boilers. San Nicolas Island is the second smallest of the Channel Islands at only 8 km from west to east tip of its leaf shape. Each hiker must search meticulously for sea otters in their section and mark them on a map. Despite the wisps of fog, the team is excited to hit the trails in search of otters.


sni scope boilers 350x263Questar telescope pointed at The Boilers kelp bed in the distanceMy assigned section is The Boilers which is notorious among the sea otter biologists coming to the island. This shallow rocky outcrop rises 3.5 km (2.2 mi) from the island’s southwest tip, providing a foothold for a vast bed of giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, and habitat for a myriad of other species including sea otters. Surveyors assigned to this location must have expert “otter spotting” skills to not only spot, but count, sea otters as distant as 4 km (2.5 mi). Our most trusted tool for accomplishing this is the Questar telescope---not a standard spotting scope but a true telescope designed for looking at celestial, rather than mustelidal bodies.

As I reach my hilltop vantage point east of the Boilers, I can see I am in a race for visibility against the fog, and the fog has a head start. Within minutes, any chance of spotting sea otters in the kelp bed is lost in a dense fog bank riding the wind to shore. For the two hours I must wait for the fog to clear, I at least have the soundtrack of the barking sea lions, croaking elephant seal bulls, and breaking surf to keep me company. At last, under the heat of the noon sun, the fog recedes, and the kelp of The Boilers reef rolls out before my scope like a vast carpet. 

Slowing panning the scope from the east end of the kelp bed to the other, my eye seeks the tiny search image of a sea otter, dark against the kelp—where there is one, there are often others---two, three, eight, twelve in raft—I find four rafts and several single otters. By the end of my day I have counted over 40 adult sea otters with 5 pups at The Boilers. After meeting up with my teammates, I discover that my section contained half of the total number of sea otters counted that day. Only once since the translocation occurred in the late 1980s, has the total count of sea otters at San Nicolas Island topped 100. Today, it will be fewer.

sni raft otters pupsSea otter moms and pups with a territorial male at San Nicolas IslandThe sea otters at San Nicolas Island seem to thrive. They find high-calorie prey abundant and easily acquired. Vast beds of giant kelp encircle the island, offering habitat for prey, shelter from predators, and security for pups. The crowds of mainland Southern California are 100 miles away. Understanding why populations thrive or decline is rarely simple, and even arriving at a sound theory can be a bit like putting together a 500-piece puzzle. We expect the San Nicolas sea otter population to expand to fill the available habitat and yet, 30 years after the translocation, the otters have not approached the island’s carrying capacity.

Because their metabolism (and thus, their appetite) runs so high, one key piece of the puzzle for sea otter populations everywhere is prey. What is available and abundant in the habitat and what are the otters selecting to eat? For this reason, an important goal of these quarterly expeditions is the acquisition of foraging data, much the same as it was during my thesis work in 2003. Team members visually locate foraging sea otters and, with the help of our trusty Questars, follow them for as long as possible to identify, count, and estimate size of prey. As a comparison point, we know what they were eating back in 2003 (see Part 1). Has that changed? Are the big, calorie-rich red urchins still a mainstay? How does that relate to changes we see in the habitat itself? With urchin barrens on the rise on the mainland of California, the otters of San Nicolas Island may help scientists unlock deeper mysteries of the relationship between sea otters and their sea urchin prey.  Look for Part 3 of Sea Otters at the Island of the Blue Dolphins to learn more about the interwoven stories of the sea otters, urchins, and kelp of coastal California. 

sni purps 450x320Purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) in a San Nicolas Island tidepool. Urchins slowly grind their own caves in the sandstone.

All photos by Gena Bentall

Sea Otter Savvy Photography Workshop Gallery

Sea Otter Savvy Photography Workshop Gallery
  • Saturday, February 17, 2018
  • Moss Landing Harbor, Elkhorn Slough
  • Joe Tomoleoni, Eco Exposure Photography
  • Gena Bentall, Sea Otter Savvy

josh 9 350x234Sea otter foraging near Forster's Terns, Josh LacayoThe participants of our Sea Otter Photography Workshop last February were treated to a day of near perfect weather on the beautiful Central California coast.  Our day started off great with a sunrise boat excursion up Elkhorn Slough during wonderful morning light and plenty of sea otters, harbor seals, and a variety of wetland bird species. We were lucky to spot sea otters resting in the pickleweed on the banks of the slough--a site unique to Elkhorn Slough!  A Northern Harrier was seen perched near the water on a marsh levy, and a row of perfectly spaced Forster’s Terns were the non-mammalian highlights of the morning. Participant Josh caught an image of a sea otter foraging near the tern lineup!


schuller 4 450x338Foraging sea otter series, Terry and David SchullerDuring the middle of the day our participants battled bright and harsh overhead sunlight, but were treated to some very close foraging sea otters while we were scouting shore-based shooting locations.  As our photographers set their tripods on the south jetty of Moss Landing Harbor, they found two otters foraging from the jetty rocks and harbor channel and created some great images of otters eating crabs, Gaper Clams, Fat Innkeeper Worms, and California Mussels. A visit to the famous Jetty Road bachelor raft provided opportunities to photograph sea otters in groups and the human encroachment they face in Moss Landing. Viewed safely from shore, otters in this raft can display a wide range of social behaviors.

We rounded out an otter-filled day with an evening cruise up Elkhorn Slough during the “Golden Hour,” and at low tide, a recipe for great images of sea otters resting in eel grass beds.  A feeding mother and pup surfaced near the boat, and appeared not to even notice our presence, which gave us an opportunity to capture those coveted mom/pup feeding images.  To round out a spectacular day, our guests were in for a rare treat as a Bottlenose Dolphin escorted our boat off into the sunset.

group photo 2 17 18 450x338Sea Otter Savvy workshop participants and leadersThe theme throughout the day was the endless possibilities to create beautiful photographs and have once in a lifetime experiences, all without disrupting  the behavior of the wildlife we enjoyed. The Whisper Charter's Selkie ll, captained by Joonya, always kept a respectful distance to avoid disturbing the otters, harbors seals, and birds along the way. Shore-based photography was fun and productive as participants remained unnoticed by their subjects. Our Sea Otter Savvy Photography Workshop left no trace behind, and took nothing away but beautiful photographs and memories. 

Our next Sea Otter Savvy Photography Workshop is planned for September 30, to coincide with Sea Otter Awareness Week. Places are limited so REGISTER NOW!

joe 6 600x298Forster's Terns in flight, Joe Tomoleoni

Sea Otters on the Island of Blue Dolphins, Part 1

sni gena sunsetThe author scanning for radio-tagged sea otters at the west end of San Nicolas Island in 2003

By Gena Bentall

sni karana otters


My roots run deeply on the island of San Nicolas. It first entered my heart when I was a young girl, curled up with the story of Karana, the heroine of Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins. The story is based on a real Nicoleño woman who was left alone on San Nicolas Island when the rest of her people were moved to the mainland in 1835. She lived alone on the island until her discovery in 1853. 150 years later in 2003, I embarked on my with San Nicolas Island love affair when I began my graduate research project on her shores. Every one of my footsteps on the dunes, cliffs, and beaches of the island have since resonated with the spirit of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas. San Nicolas Island (friends can call her San Nic) is an important part of the story of sea otter recovery from near extinction in California. The most remote of Southern California’s Channel Islands, San Nic offers seemingly ideal habitat for sea otters and lies within the species’ historic range. In the late 1980s it was selected as a site for establishing a “buffer” population of sea otters—a recovery wellspring from which to replenish the mainland should an oil spill devastate the sea otter population there. From 1987 to 1990 sea otters were translocated from the central California mainland to San Nicolas Island. After an initial post-translocation “settling” period during which numbers dropped to minimum level, the San Nic sea otter population has continued to grow.

sni boilers aerialAerial view of San Nicolas IslandToday, 30 years after the translocation, as our research team disembarks at the San Nic air terminal, the sea otter population at San Nicolas Island persists but remains well below carrying capacity. Our team is composed of Brian Hatfield, the biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center (USGS-WERC) who has been leading sea otter surveys at San Nicolas for most of those 30 years, Lilian Carswell, Southern Sea Otter Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Joe Tomoleoni, sea otter biologist with USGS-WERC, Claudia Makeyev, Environmental Protection Specialist with the US Navy (San Nic is currently an Outlying Landing Field for the Navy), and me, alumnus of San Nic. We are here to count sea otters on the Island of the Blue Dolphins.

sni gena scope cropThe author monitoring tagged sea otters at San Nic with scope and antenna in 2005For a year back in 2003, I spent most of my days on San Nic. Most of the hours of each of those days was spent in search of sea otters that had been tagged with brightly colored flipper tags and radio transmitters. I followed their most intimate everyday movements and behaviors, so I could study their survival, reproduction, foraging, and movement in the waters around the island. Early each morning, to beat the ever-present afternoon winds, my partner and I would arise with antenna and spotting scope in hopes of watching one of our tagged sea otters as they foraged for prey in vast beds of giant kelp. What I learned during that year, would change our understanding of how sea otters adapt as they recolonized their former range.

The first bold explorers into new habitat focus on abundant, high-calorie favorite prey like urchins. As more otters arrive, and favorite prey become harder to find, sea otters become specialists, with individual otters favoring “suites” of prey that require a similar skill with a tool, or similar skills to find and acquire. As each sea otter settles into a foraging “niche”, fewer are competing directly for food.

sni urchin otter2A sea otter with red urchins. Photo by Erin Rechsteiner

The sea otters of San Nic, well below the carrying capacity of their island home, ate a diet almost exclusively of large red sea urchins, a species both nutritious and easy to acquire. Their counterparts on the California mainland fell into specialist groups—in a single rocky cove in San Simeon one sea otter may hunt for abalone, while a neighbor smashes small turban snails on a rock anvil. This remote island provided the perfect opportunity to confirm hypotheses about how sea otters respond to increasing competition as their population recovers.

sni specialization figure450Sea otter foraging specialist types found of the Central CA coast. Tinker et al. 2008
After settling into our quarters our survey team is eager to head to San Nic’s west end, where most of the sea otters are usually found. It is tradition to take a quick “first look” on the eve of the start of the survey, and cheers and pats on the back are routine for the first to spot a raft of sea otters. On this eve, however, the weather had other plans. 

The story continues next week in Sea Otters on the Island of Blue Dolphins, Part 2...

sni fog sunsetWest end view hints at our weather impediment





Destination Coast: What Kind of Guest Will You Be?


As we say goodbye to winter on the Central California coast, the storms are still sending us their much needed rain. Time will pass beyond the solstice—the rain will lessen and the spring days of calm, bright mornings and gusty afternoons will settle upon us. The months of spring, summer, and fall bring forth a celebrated combination of fine weather and human population in vacation mode, and the year-round homes of sea otters are often the destination. 

Are you planning a trip to Monterey to explore both the land and sea perspective of iconic Cannery Row? Are you dreaming of a stroll down the Embarcadero and a paddle to view the sea otter raft of Morro Bay? Are you gearing up to explore the upper fingers of Elkhorn Slough? As your paddle first catches the water anywhere along the coast, you become guests in the home of a myriad of species: harbor seals, cormorants, godwits, jellies, sea lions, gray whales, the great undersea forests of giant kelp and, of course, sea otters. It is up to you to be a courteous guest in their home. Here are some tips:

Sea otter savvy kayakers give sea otters plenty of space in Moss LandingSea otter savvy kayakers give sea otters plenty of space in Moss Landing

  • Know before you go. Study up on the species you might encounter and be sure to know guidelines for responsible behavior around all of them. A little research online will do the trick, but here is a good place to start
  • Leave no trace. Challenge yourself to leave nothing behind: not a piece of trash or an increased stress level. 
  • Renting? Listen to your outfitter's staff and guides! Most outfitters provide excellent guidelines for paddlers before they head out.
  • Consider planning your trip for a less busy time and day—weekdays, non-holidays—whenever fewer others will have the same recreation plans. You will enjoy a less crowded trip and you will be helping to reduce the weekend and holiday burden on the wildlife and habitat.
  • Shhhhh, be quiet. The less commotion you make the more natural behaviors you'll see and hear.
  • Put your smart phone down. You will not be able to replicate the photos of expert wildlife photographers with your phone without harassing your subject. Selfies with wildlife are selfish. View and experience nature with your eyes open and your phone in your dry bag. 
  • Use care when you share. Post your favorite photos of your outdoor adventures but provide a good social media example by not sharing photos promoting irresponsible behavior towards the coast's non-human residents. Say no to selfies with wildlife!
  • And most importantly: PAY ATTENTION. You are a guest in an amazing place. Watch for wildlife and be alert to how they respond to you. If they are looking at you, it's a warning you have entered their world and need to stop your approach and back away.

So do your holiday homework and paddle out this spring in awareness so you can be the best guest in California's coastal ecosystems that you can be!

Watch and share our two short films about sea otters before you go, to put some sea otter savvy tips on your mind and a song on your lips.