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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

The Big Picture: Photographing Wildlife Ecosystems

This photo  of a sea otter at rest in kelp canopy was taken on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia from a boat, at a respectful distance, with a Nikon D3 S with a 24-70mm lensThis photo of a sea otter at rest in kelp canopy was taken on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia from a boat, at a respectful distance, with a Nikon D3 S with a 24-70mm lens

By Isabelle Groc

When it comes to photographing wildlife, most of us are looking to create a connection with our subject, revealing the personalities of animals. We tend to focus on the eyes, working tight with long lenses, to create intimate and revealing images. The background may be irrelevant. What matters is the visual relationship between the photographer and the photographed animal. Our audiences also naturally tend to be attracted towards images that get us closer to the animal, whether it is an elephant, a polar bear, or a sea otter. These wildlife portraits are the ones that are often the most popular on social media.

We are particularly drawn to charismatic, beautiful animals, while numerous species are constantly ignored. I experienced this bias when I started working on my documentary Toad People. Many people repeatedly challenged us on our choice to focus on western toads, an amphibian whose delicate beauty was not immediately apparent.

Do portraits of charismatic wildlife truly create a lasting connection with nature? Do they help motivate audiences to protect and conserve the featured animals? Do they promote a sense of care? I would argue that while close-up wildlife images can be compelling on an emotional level and get people’s immediate attention, they do not always help towards the long-term conservation of species.

These photographs offer an abstract view of wild species, disconnected from their environment. In this moment, we forget that the animals are an integral part of a complex, interconnected, diverse system. No species exists in isolation as the images may lead us to believe.

Research exploring the “paradoxical extinction of the most charismatic animals” reviewed the conservation status of the 10 animals considered the most charismatic by the public: the tiger, the lion, the elephant, the giraffe, the leopard, the panda, the cheetah, the polar bear, the gray wolf, and the gorilla. The study published in 2018 and led by Franck Courchamp of the University of Paris-Sud found that all these species except for the gray wolf were classified as either Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered according to the IUCN Red List.

What is particularly troubling is that Courchamp and his team found that the public was often unaware that the animals they deemed charismatic were threatened with extinction. Why was there such a lack of awareness? The study suggests that “people base their perception of these species on their virtual rather than real populations.” In other  words, as people are inundated every day with images portraying the animals, they are led to believe that they are way more abundant in the wild than is accurate.

When we show close-up portraits that separate wildlife species from their natural habitat, we, as photographers are contributing to this problem and are disconnecting ourselves further from nature as a complex system. Habitat destruction is the number one threat faced by many species, whether they are charismatic or not. I believe photographers have the responsibility to visually reconnect the animals to their habitat and symbolically give them their space back.

It is time to take a step back and reinvent our vocabulary. Wildlife images should not just be stand-alone abstract portraits. Instead, they can become part of a larger story that helps create awareness and connects the public to the predicament of species in the wild. Rather than zooming in or cropping our subject, how can we zoom out, see the big picture, and show the connections between the animals and the wild places they live in?

groc beach closure signs 2 500Sea otters at home in an estuary eelgrass bed with neighboring harbor seals. Photo was taken in Elkhorn Slough at a respectful distance from a boat using a Nikon D3 S with a 200-500 mm lens and 1.4 converter.Sea otters are a great example that illustrates this approach to wildlife storytelling. I have photographed sea otters for the last 12 years, and have come to understand how their role as a keystone species is essential to a rich, complex and connected ecosystem, contributing to the overall health of the planet. 

Like many other people, I first fell in love with their beautiful faces and wanted to capture all the details of their whiskers and paws with my camera. But as I spent more time studying the animals and interviewed biologists, the more I came to understand that sea otters reveal the importance of fully functioning ecosystems. Sea otters inspired me to see the big picture. I realized that everything was connected and that when one species is removed from the system, there are cascading effects that we barely comprehend.

This was a turning point for me as a photojournalist.  I no longer just wanted to create the images that revealed the variety of sea otters’ behaviours, I also looked for ways to visually “frame” these animals in the context of their multidimensional story of how they transform their environment in both obvious and subtle ways. This meant paying attention to the details of the local ecosystem, from invertebrates in the rich intertidal zone to birds, seagrass and kelp. It also stressed the importance of becoming familiar with the scientific knowledge that has been gathered  about the animals. The science now guides my visual storytelling.

In doing so, I have not only been able to document the world of the sea otter, but also rethink how I can visually give space back to all the species I photograph and tell the larger stories of diverse wildlife systems. My hope is that this approach can enhance our relationship to nature and encourage us to not see wildlife as abstract art but actively educate ourselves about the threats they face and take steps to protect the natural world.

To learn more about Isabelle’s work, visit her website and follow her on Instagram

Her most recent non fiction children’s book Sea Otters: A Survival Story with foreword by Dame Judi Dench and David Mills (Orca Book Publishers, April 2020) is available in print and ebook.

Are You a Wildlife Storyteller?

A sea otter in its ecosystem. Photo by Morgan RectorA sea otter in its ecosystem. Photo by Morgan Rector

Sea Otter Savvy Wildlife Storyteller Photo Contest

We are often naturally attracted to charismatic species: animals that impress us by their size or inherent beauty. An example is the sea otter, who is an integral part of a diverse community—kelp, urchins, rockfish, sea stars, seals, seabirds, humans, and hundreds more—living together in a place with a unique set of physical features.

Therefore, it is no surprise that sea otters are a popular subject for photography and media. At Sea Otter Savvy we encourage enjoyment of the many wonderful images of sea otters, but with a healthy dose of awareness and scrutiny. Many love to see images of animals looking at us---eye contact being a standard for portraits that engage the viewer in the moment. However, it is difficult to know whether that eye contact was a lucky moment caught with a telephoto lens, or the result of an animal noticing the photographer’s presence. While a gaze turned toward a photographer does not itself constitute a disturbance, it does shift the subject of the image away from natural behavior, to a snapshot of a reaction to the presence of a human. These photos also tend to isolate the animals, and shifts audiences’ attention away from the natural context that supports the survival of species in the wild.

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.

Winning photos will also promote ethical wildlife photography and inspire a new commitment to stewardship through respectful photography and storytelling. Become a Sea Otter Savvy photographer, promote your photography responsibly, and join our community! We hope the images we select will inspire not only photographers, but also scientists, conservationists and advocates for the natural world.

Ecosystem defined: An ecosystem is a community of living organisms (plants, animals and microbes) linked together in a particular place through nutrient cycles and energy flows.


photo page jackie 500Join us in "zooming out" to feature animals and their habitat!

The Sea Otter Savvy Wildlife Storyteller photo contest is open to professional and amateur photographers for all ages. Any device is welcome to be used from SLR to cellphone, so long as all recommended viewing distances, specific to species, are respected. Beautiful wildlife photography does not always require closeup shots, and those entering the contest should aim to use their medium strategically and responsibly.

Entries must respect the following:

  • Portray a species in its natural ecosystem/community. Subject may include any living species and is not limited to sea otters.
  • No direct eye contact
  • The welfare of a subject and its environment must be placed ahead of the desire to capture a photograph.
  • No captive animals; no images that appear to be the result of baiting; no images taken at game farms
  • Follow distance guidelines specific to species of choice (no disturbance photography)
  • Include a caption with location, species identification, story, distance, camera and lens info
  • Submit a title and story behind the image, whether that is a personal or ecological one, demonstrating the relationship between the species and the context.



To Enter:

Photo contest Begins July 27th and all Entries must be received by 5:00PM(PST) Monday, September 14th

Submission guidelines:

To submit an entry, the photograph must be posted on either Instagram or Facebook* by Monday September 14th at 5:00 PM (PST) with the following:

         -Tag and follow @seaottersavvy

         -Include #SOSPhotoContest #WildlifeStoryTeller

         -Caption with your story that includes location, species ID, distance, camera & lens info.

*For those not wanting to post on social media – you can submit via email or Facebook messenger in jpeg format, edited in sRGB color space, at least 2,000 pixels wide and no larger than 10 MB.

You must complete a separate post for each photo submitted. Maximum of 3 entries per person. Finalists must be prepared to submit an original, unedited digital file for final judging.

 Note: You retain your rights to your photograph; however, by entering the contest, you grant Sea Otter Savvy a royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual, non-exclusive license to publicly reproduce, publish, exhibit and communicate to the public by any means and in all media through the world any entry. This license is granted only for use in relation to the competition which shall include but will not be limited to any of the following uses: the process of judging the competition; public display; publication on relevant parts of the Sea Otter Savvy website; publicity materials, including social media. Any photograph reproduced will include a photographer credit.


Judging process

Photo entries will be judged based on the following criteria: storytelling; story caption; demonstrated relationship between species and ecosystem; quality; impact; responsible wildlife photography. Winners will be announced on the final day of Sea Otter Awareness week: Saturday, 26th September 2020  

The competition will be judged* by a panel of photography professionals and wildlife biologists. Meet our judges:

Gena Bentall, Sea Otter Savvy Executive Director and Research Scientist

Isabelle Groc, Wildlife Photographer and Author

Heather Barrett, Sea Otter Savvy Science Communications Director and Research Scientist

Jeff & Wendy, of Jeff & Wendy Photography

Joe Tomoleoni, Wildlife Photographer and sea otter biologist

Morgan Rector, Wildlife Photographer

*The contest judges reserve the right to disqualify images that, in their sole discretion, appear to be the result of questionable practices. Sea Otter Savvy reserves to the right for final decision.

Photography Interviews and Inspiration:

To help guide and inspire those entering the contest, there will be a series of blogs and 4 Instagram Live stream interviews with wildlife photographers. These will serve as resources for entrants to learn more on how to become a Sea Otter Savvy Photographer, providing tips and guidelines on visual storytelling and responsible wildlife photography.

All live stream interviews will also be uploaded to the Sea Otter Savvy YouTube channel for future reference.

Interview Schedule:

joe tomoleoni portraitWildlife photographer and sea otter biologist, Joe Tomoleoni

30th July, 2020 (11:00 AM PST) – Interview on storytelling through photography with conservation photographer and Author Isabelle Groc

13th August, 2020 (11:00 AM PST)  – Interview on an ecosystem perspective on wildlife photography with EcoExposure’s photographer Joe Tomoleoni

27th August, 2020 (11:00 AM PST)  – Interview on wildlife photography and social media with photographer Morgan Rector

10th September, 2020 (11:00 AM PST)  - Interview on understanding ethical wildlife photography with photographers Jeff Torquemada and Wendy Sparks

26th September, 2020 (Time TBD) – Photography panel with guest photographers to answer questions on ethical wildlife photography and announce the winners of the Sea Otter Savvy Wildlife Storyteller Photo Contest


Winning Categories and prizes:

First placeSea Otters: A Survival Story + Sea Otter Savvy cap + Sea Otter Awareness Week shirt

Runner-up – Sea Otters: A Survival Story + Sea Otter Savvy cap

Honorable Mention – Sea Otter Savvy cap

Youth (< 18yo) – Sea Otters a Survival Story + Sea Otter Savvy cap + Sea Otter Awareness Week shirt

Rhyme and Design: Limerick Contest 2020

One of the winning limericks from 2018 in use at the Moss Landing boat launchOne of the winning limericks from 2018 in use at the Moss Landing boat launch

Calling all rhymsters and doodlers! It's time for a fresh batch of limericks in Moss Landing!  Are you clever with a rhyme and meter? Do you want to spread awareness (with a giggle) about the sea otters of Moss Landing? Sea Otter Savvy is hosting our second contest for the best limerick to feature guidelines for savvy paddling in Moss Landing Harbor and Elkhorn Slough. This year, we will be adding a second element to the contest: contestents may submit a limerick or a cartoon (or both)! With the support of the Moss Landing Harbor District and the Community Active Wildlife Stewards,  we will be freshening up  our launch-point info-graphics reminding paddlers to observe the following guidelines for keeping both sea otters and humans safe:

  • Always stay at least 5 kayak lengths from sea otters
  • Disturbing sea otters is harmful and violates federal laws
  • Please leave the closed beach opposite the boat launch people-free
  • Avoid sea otters that approach you. They may bite!

Winning limericks and cartoons will best embody the above guidelines. To facilitate creativity and insure clarity, the guidelines are included as written above at the bottom of the final sign. While risqué limericks may entertain the judges, they will not be considered for the contest. A panel of Sea Otter Savvy advisors and partners will review and choose three winners. Each winning limerick will be featured on three signs to be placed at key watercraft access points in the North Harbor. Entries must be received by midnight Earth Day, April 18, 2020 to be considered. Get out and rhyme!

Submission Instructions:

Cartoons should be simple, neat, and limited to four colors. Submit your entry through Sea Otter Savvy’s Facebook Messenger as a jpeg, or via email to with “Sea Otter Savvy Limerick Contest” in the subject line.

Limericks should be submitted through Sea Otter Savvy’s Facebook Messenger as text, or via email to with “Sea Otter Savvy Limerick Contest” in the subject line. A limerick is a poetic form composed of one stanza with five lines and a rhyme scheme of “AABBA” that usually is humorous. Here’s one of our winning entries from the last contest as an example:

Don’t paddle too close while we’re searchin’

For a crab or a tasty sea urchin.

Don’t land on our beach,

and stay well out of reach,

Or you’ll frighten us into submergin’

By Laura Crowley


Note: Sea Otter Savvy reserves the right to refuse contest participation to anyone submitting inappropriate or offensive limericks or artwork. In the event none of the cartoon entries are deemed suitable for use on these public signs, we reserve the right to use alternative artwork. 

What Does it Mean to be an Ethical Wildlife Photographer?

feature photographer jeff wendy bannerA mother sea otter and her nursing pup are left undisturbed for this portrait. Read Jeff and Wendy's story behind this image below.

By Jeff Torquemada and Wendy Sparks

There is nothing more thrilling than spending time observing and photographing sea otters. They are one of our favorite subjects to shoot and as professional wildlife photographers we have always prided ourselves as being ethical when capturing images of any wildlife subject.

We constantly research the various wildlife subjects we are interested in photographing, so we gain a better understanding of their routines and behaviors. We discovered the Sea Otter Savvy website while doing some in-depth reading on sea otters and were mortified when we realized we had unknowingly compromised the welfare of some of the otters we were photographing! We foolishly thought we were not disturbing the otters when they raised their heads to stare at us before diving under water. We also assumed photographing from our kayak was less threatening to the sea otters because we were low in the water and our vessel was quiet!  Well, after learning more about what defines a disturbance to a sea otter, we realized we had, on occasion, unintentionally disturbed them. In addition to learning how to recognize the behavioral signs of disturbance, we learned these disturbances can result in sea otters diving and swimming away, behaviors that carry an energetic cost to sea otters who may already be just meeting their daily energy demands. It also requires them to groom their fur again to maintain the precious air layer that keep them insulated from the cold ocean. Did you know it may take a sea otter that has been disturbed from rest as long as 15 minutes to groom and go back to sleep?  

We now understand preserving an animal’s energy and not disrupting their daily routine is of paramount importance. Those disruptions cause animals to waste precious energy, which they need for survival. Wildlife has a baseline (maintenance behavior) and if this baseline is disturbed it results in unnecessary energy loss. We all need to practice functional invisibility, which is really all about awareness, connection, empathy, and respect for wildlife. As photographers, you want to document natural behavior and not cause that behavior to be altered by your presence.  For example, if you notice a resting sea otter suddenly becomes very alert with eyes riveted on you it is time to move away from that animal.                                               

We believe the most important role a nature photographer plays is being a voice for all wildlife. We need to devote time to learn about the habits and behaviors of our wildlife subjects and recognize how to respectfully interact with them without disturbing their daily routines. We also can serve as role models for budding photographers and demonstrate ethical practices such as maintaining a safe distance from an animal.

We have pondered the question, “What does ethical wildlife photography actually mean?”  So, we decided to do some research and reviewed a variety of definitions.  We believe the statements below capture the essence of what we consider ethical wildlife photography.

photo ethics mom restA resting sea otter mother and her pup seeking refuge in a harbor. We were able to photograph them from the landing above their resting area, which allowed us not to disturb them. We shot this image using a tripod and a 500mm lens.Our favorite definitions of ethical wildlife photography

" At its most fundamental, ethical wildlife photography holds the welfare of the animal above any photographic capture. At its most expansive, it promotes increased consideration and compassion for wild animals through practice, education, conversation, and advocacy."   ~North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA)

"If you have an idea on how to capture an image and you’re asking yourself questions about whether or not it is ethical, then it most likely isn’t. Putting wildlife first is of the utmost importance. An image is not worth the disturbance, or even the life of an animal."  ~Jeff Hogan, Wildlife Videographer

"The first essential element in bird photography is a sincere respect for the birds and their environment. In any conflict of interest, the well-being of the birds and their habitats must come before the ambitions of the photographer."   ~Audubon's Guide to Ethical Bird Photography

Our philosophy

  • If capturing an image will compromise the welfare of an animal, it is not an ethical practice.
  • If your presence causes a change in their behavior you are negatively impacting the animal. For example, if while photographing an owl you continue pursuit as it flies away from you, you are causing that bird to use precious energy to avoid you.
  • Baiting wildlife to entice the animal to approach for a better shot is not an ethical practice and is illegal in many places. When you feed (bait) an animal you are altering an animal’s natural behavior, which could lead to its death.
  • Chasing animals is NEVER okay.
  • Wildlife parents with young should be treated with the utmost respect. They are already investing a big portion of their energy to raising the next generation.
  • Altering the environment to get a better shot of your subject also compromises the welfare of an animal (such a trimming branches to obtain a better shot).
  • Avoid crowding an animal. This is prevalent in National Parks, on safari in Africa, and with kayakers and paddle boarders who approach and encircle wildlife too closely.
  • Clearly identify images taken while visiting a zoological or game park.
  • If there are signs indicating an area is closed to protect wildlife, respect that message.
  • When we post images of wildlife, we do not list the specific location. Social media spreads location sightings at warp speed, which compromises the welfare of the animals.

A few things sea otter photographers can do to capture great images while preserving natural, undisturbed behaviors

  • Be aware of distance. Take the time to learn about the rules and regulations regarding how close you can approach animals in every area you are visiting and photographing. For example, in Yellowstone National Park it is posted you must be 100 yards or more from a wolf or bear, but only 25 yards from an elk or coyote. You can be fined if you violate these distance regulations. For sea otters, the distance recommendation is a minimum of 60ft (5 kayak lengths), and 100 feet is even safer.
  • Be aware of behavior. If the sea otter is alert and looking directly at you, it is a sign they are disturbed regardless of your distance. If a resting sea otter dives and swims away, it is a clear indication of disturbance.
  • Avoid posting photographs with direct eye contact. Even if it is a lucky shot and the sea otter just happened to glance your way, these images unfortunately encourage other photographers, who may not be shooting with a long lens, to do the same.
  • Include information about how you photo was taken. By including your distance from your subject and describing your camera type and lens you help to encourage other photographers to follow your lead.

We would like to share a few images that will assist you in recognizing what is considered a disturbance.

What not to do: attract attention to yourself

What not to do: attract attention to yourself

This image taken in 2015 was shot from our kayak with a 100-400mm lens extended to 300mm and approximately 40 feet from the otter. This image is not cropped and demonstrates we were way too close and clearly disturbing the sea otter.
What to do: feature natural behaviors

What to do: feature natural behaviors

We photographed this sea otter in the early evening while it feasted on crabs. We positioned ourselves on the jetty road and used a tripod and our 100-400mm lens (extended to 340mm) to capture this image.
What not to do: disturbing rest

What not to do: disturbing rest

Sea otters at rest are especially impacted by human disturbance.We shot this image from our kayak using a 100-400mm lens that was extended to 300mm. We were caught up in the “cuteness” of this resting sea otter, whose fur was dry and fluffy. We did not realize that as our kayak drifted a little bit closer we caused her to dive and move away from us. You can see the motion of her tail as she uses it to propel herself away from us.
What to do: avoid disturbance by shooting from shore

What to do: avoid disturbance by shooting from shore

There are a number of great places to observe and photograph sea otters from shore without disturbing them. We took this photo of a raft of females peacefully sleeping in a harbor from a public walkway. As long as observers are quiet and blend in with the crowd (e.g. don't climb down on rocks or docks at water level), they can often go unnoticed by harbor sea otters.
What not to do: harass mothers with pups

What not to do: harass mothers with pups

We dug a little deeper and found this image taken our 100-400mm lens at 130 mm in 2015. The entire incident was upsetting because a group of people were yelling at this mother otter and chasing her along the walkway behind the restaurant off of highway 1 near Elkhorn Slough. We were already on the deck photographing pelicans when this poor mom and pup came zipping by. Even if we didn't cause the disturbance, we would need to carefully caption this photo to distinguish it as a product of disturbance.
What to do: respect mothers with pups

What to do: respect mothers with pups

Here we captured a quiet moment between a sea otter mother and her nursing pup. This image was shot from our kayak with a 100-400mm lens extended to 300mm and approximately 60 feet from the otter. This image was tightly cropped. Clearly our presence did not interfere with this pup nursing and mom catching some much-needed rest.

Please enjoy spending time observing and photographing sea otters but be mindful if your presence is compromising their normal behavior. Sea otters are the stewards for the kelp forests and we should be the stewards for the sea otter.

Happy Shooting!

Note:  we have removed older images on our website and Instagram account that might encourage people to attempt to take photographs of sea otters at such close proximity.

Meet our guest bloggers, Jeff Torqumada and Wendy Sparks, Jeff and Wendy Photography

photo ethics biopic“Promoting respect and awareness for wildlife through the lens of a camera.”

Jeff and Wendy are passionate about preserving all things wild and through the medium of photography strive to capture images that tell a story and evoke emotion. Photography has allowed them to gain a more intimate perspective on wildlife while viewing them through the lens of a camera. They 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.

They use their photography as a voice for wildlife and conservation issues. They devote time educating people about the animals they photograph through their website, social media and photography classes. Wildlife photography inspires them to travel and dedicate time researching the subjects they want to shoot and the conservation issues they have a desire to support. Jeff’s degree is in Fine Arts, so painting and drawing are an ongoing passion. Wendy has a Master’s in Educational Leadership, but their passion for wildlife photography has been a unifying force.

They have volunteered at Lindsay Wildlife Experience since 1985 and also volunteer for the Least Tern Project.  Each year they donate a percentage of the proceeds from their annual wildlife calendar to Lindsay Wildlife Hospital and other non-profit organizations such as the River Otter Ecology Project. Their work can be seen at 4th Street Fine Art in Berkeley, California.

Jeff and Wendy want their images to promote an awareness and respect for all wildlife and provide people with an image that reminds them of the importance of connecting with nature on an emotional level. Follow them on Instagram or visit their website to see more of their wildlife photos.