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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

Drone, drone, fly away, respect the nap every day.

by Gena Bentall and Alicia Emerson

sea otter mom pup 400A female sea otter rests in a kelp bed with her pup on her belly as another sea otter nearby surfaces from the depths with a crab dinner. To the general public this offers an alluring window into an offshore world. Aerial views of sea otters captured by drones give scientists and recreational drone pilots a new and intriguing perspective. Until just a few years ago, these kinds of perspectives on marine mammals were limited to research scientists in planes.

Now, with personal drones widely available to the public and becoming increasingly affordable, bird's-eye-views of nature are more readily at hand. In our excitement and enthusiasm at being freed from the bonds of gravity to view wildlife from new heights, we may have forgotten to consider whether our presence in the air has a negative impact on the creatures below.

Less than a century ago a very small population of around one hundred sea otters lived off the coast of Big Sur—remnants of a maritime fur trade that nearly wiped them out. With extensive support from government, university, and non-governmental organizations the sea otters of California are slowly recovering. As they re-colonize places from which they were once extirpated, sea otters’ favorite habitats increasingly overlap with locations popular for coastal recreation, creating a perfect recipe for human-wildlife conflict.

In November 2017, at the 3rd Annual Central California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium, Sea Otter Savvy program coordinator Gena Bentall met up with AliMoSphere leader, Alicia Amerson. AliMoSphere is a woman-owned small business working to reduce wildlife disturbance from drones, educate proper drone use through best practices, and get drones into more conservation research projects to reduce biologist mortality in small manned plane survey. Our common interest is sharing a message to protect sea otters on land and in the water from drone disturbance. An initiative that we hope spreads to the protection and stewardship of drones for all marine wildlife using the California coast.

drone sea lion cumulativeSome tips about sea otters and drones that we are passing along to you:

  • If you are considering using drones to explore coastal wilderness, please fly responsibly and consider your effect on marine animals.  
  • If you fly close enough that wildlife of any kind takes notice of you, it is time to back away (by slowly gaining altitude and moving away).  From the sea otter's point-of-view, once he looks at your drone, you’ve already disturbed him.
  • Drones flying low over resting sea otters can cause an entire group (or raft) to dive and flee. Such disturbances, known as “full flushes”, increase stress, require extensive recovery time to resettle and groom fur, and can disrupt behavior of mothers and their pups.
  • Consider that sea otters in the populated areas of the central California coast may be repeatedly exposed to human-caused disturbance each day.
  • Sea otters can suffer negative effects from repeated human disturbance.
  • Your single fly over, seemingly just a momentary event to you, can be one more link in a chain of disturbances that accumulate to a heavy energetic burden to a nutritionally stressed sea otter.

Sea Otter Lifestyle Quick Tips: Those sea otters who live in areas of highest density are often struggling to meet their daily minimum caloric requirement, and diving and swimming away from human activities causes them to use energy they can’t afford to waste.

Swimming and diving expend more calories in sea otters than most other behaviors.

Sea otters groom and roll in the water to increase air bubbles in their fur which keeps them warm in the cold Pacific waters. They don't have a layer of blubber like other marine mammals. Time spent attending to their fur is vital for survival. 

otter mom pup 6590Moms with pups are expending extra energy and should be given extra space and consideration. Respect the moms!

For those unfamiliar with marine mammal behavior, some homework will help you recognize what is normal, and what is an animal's response to disturbance. Plus you have two amazing resources at your fingertips - by connecting with Sea Otter Savvy and AliMoSphere you get information about sea otters and reducing drone disturbance.

 

Stress—an invisible impact: Signs of stress can be difficult to observe in wild animals.They are unable to tell us with words how they are feeling. Scientists studying black bears originally thought the drones did not disturb the bears, who seemed to calmly sit and observe when the drones were near. Then, reviewing data from heart rate monitors on the bears, they discovered that a bear’s heart rate rose 400% when the drone was near 1. Imagine your heart rate raising 400% and not knowing how to respond! How long would it take for you to calm down? These bears appeared calm but they reacted to drones in ways we can’t easily see. Sea otter moms with young pups may be reluctant to swim of dive away from an encroaching drone or kayak, but may be suffering stress nevertheless.—we truly have no idea how drones impact wildlife.

drone sea otterNext Steps:

  1. Study up on sea otter disturbance by visiting our “Understanding Disturbance” page.
  2. Join the AliMoSphere Flight Blog to get more quick tips on reducing your flight disturbance. Or sign-up for a flight consultation today.  
  3. Put yourself in the sea otter’s place---resting warm and wrapped snugly in kelp, awakened by a mysterious creature buzzing low over your bedroom.
  4. Be a good steward: respect wildlife, respect your fellow earthlings, respect the nap.

Sea Otter Savvy is excited to join with our new partner AliMoSphere, to foster a community of wildlife aware drone pilots.Connect with Alicia and AliMoSphere here .

Additional Resources:

ECO-Drone

Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Responsible Use to Help Protect Marine Mammals

 

1. Ditmer, M.A. et al. Bears Show a Physiological but Limited Behavioral Response to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Current Biology , Volume 25 , Issue 17 , 2278 - 2283

 

 

One Shot Ends a Life

shooting morro rock viewSea otters forage peacefully in the shadow of Morro Rock

This was supposed to be a story with a happy ending. In September of 2016, the community of Morro Bay was working together to assist with the rescue of a female sea otter that had been spotted in the bay with gaping wounds caused by entanglement with fishing line. The wounds were so obvious they could be seen from shore, kayak, or boat, and alerts were coming in to Morro Bay’s resident sea otter biologist, Mike Harris, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Harris had put the word out to locals who were on or near the water to keep an eye out and report sightings to him, so he could make an attempt to capture her and bring in for treatment. After several failed attempts at capture, the word about the injured sea otter had spread throughout the community and reports streamed in from local standup shooting line woundWounds from fishing line entanglement are visible on 741 following her capture for treatment. Photo by Mike Harrispaddleboard shops, volunteers from the local kayak-based SeaLife Stewards team, and private citizens. Finally, on September 12, Harris was alerted that the sea otter was spotted in open water inside the harbor. Transported to the location on one of the Morro Bay Harbor Patrol vessels, he was able to safely net her. Harris took the young female otter to the Marine Mammal Center, where veterinarian Dr. Heather Harris noted multiple wounds where the line cut deeply into the skin. After initial treatment, she was transported to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for further care. It is unlikely she would have survived these wounds without intervention.

Following more than 18 weeks of intensive care at the Aquarium (where she was known as otter 741), she was given brightly colored flipper tags to help spotters identify her at a distance, and declared healthy enough for release. On December 2, 2016, Mike Harris, and participants from the Marine Mammal Center and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, released 741 back to her home waters of Morro Bay. It was a moment to celebrate, not just one sea otter's recovery and freedom, but the valor of so many who helped her. 

741 was sighted resting in a common sea otter rafting spot in the bay near the base of Morro Rock for about a week after release. While Harris and local volunteers looked for her daily, she was not spotted again after that first week. Harris suspects she was there all along but had chewed off the plastic identifying tags on her hind flippers, and so became just one among those rafted in the kelp.

The participation of the community of Morro Bay in the rescue and rehabilitation of this sea otter, so grievously injured by the garbage we leave in our wake, was symbolic of a gentle tip of the scale of attitudes towards sea otters that has happened over the last decade in this small coastal town. Historically a thriving fishing community, Morro Bay has long had a segment of residents that actively revile sea otters as plunderers of coastal species and destroyers of fisheries. In recent years, the power of a healthy sea otter population to draw tourists to the bay has begun to turn the tide, and the city has embraced their presence in the harbor. Sea Otter Awareness Week has been declared and celebrated for two years running. The devotion of local volunteers with organizations like SeaLife Stewards, Sea Otter Experience, Sea Otter Savvy, and the Marine Mammal Center who give their time to promote sea otter awareness and conservation is truly inspiring.

While the balance of community opinion may have shifted in favor of sea otters, some still harbor anger, resentment, and hatred---perpetuating false claims of ecosystem shooting resight 741 raft741 (center) rafted with some of Morro Bay's sea otters following her rehabilitation and release. Photo by Mike Harrisdevastation and advocating for the persistence of a handful of fisheries over the rightful presence of sea otters in the waters from which they were once nearly extirpated.

I don’t know if it was this hatred or some other motivation that resulted in the tragic end to what was once an inspiring conservation story. On September 12, 2017, otter 741 was found floating dead in the waters of Morro Bay. Examination of her body revealed that she had died recently—within 12 hours or less— and had suffered a fatal pellet gun shot to the head. The location of the pellet in the back of her head, was consistent with a shot to to resting otter, as they typically sleep on their back, chin resting on their chest, with the back of their neck exposed. Given the fresh condition of her body, the incoming tides, and the location where she was found, Harris thinks it is possible she was resting peacefully in the kelp bed by Target Rock near the entrance to the harbor—perhaps among other sea otters— when she was shot. A female sea otter, who had been given a new lease on life through the intervention of humans, was now robbed of a life in the sea foraging for crabs, sleeping wrapped in kelp, and rearing the future generations of sea otters. This is the second sea otter killed by a pellet gun in the Morro Bay area in the last decade, with another gunshot otter recovered on Morro Strand in 2010. That crime has never been solved. Are the two incidents are related?

The monstrous murder of this sea otter begs for justice. I urge all the community members of Morro Bay who are part of that “turn of the tide” towards sea otter awareness and appreciation to be vigilant for clues that may lead to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator. The shooting occurred either early on the morning of September 12 or late the night before. The weapon was a pellet gun or air rifle, weapons which are becoming increasingly powerful. Have you overheard someone bragging about the shooting? Did you witness any suspicious behavior at that time?  If you have any information that may help solve this case, please call CalTIP at 888-334-2258 or via the CalTIP app.

Despite this tragedy, I have faith that our California communities are rich with people who respect their wildlife neighbors, give them voices when they need advocates, and aspire to a coastal community where predators like sea otters are valued and welcomed. I have no doubt where the tide is turning.

shooting target rock raftMorro Bay's sea otters peacefully resting near Target Rock

Limerick Contest: See Your Rhyme on Our Sign!

sos limerick 400

mossl boat launch signNOTE: This contest ended September 2017. Look for another contest in 2019!

Are you clever with a limerick? Do you want to be a hero for the sea otters of Moss Landing? Sea Otter Savvy is hosting a contest for the best limerick to feature our guidelines for savvy paddling in Moss Landing Harbor and Elkhorn Slough.  With the support of the Moss Landing Harbor District, we will be placing warning signs to remind paddlers that are launching from the North Harbor boat launch and nearby beach 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
  • Do not land on the beach opposite this launching area
  • Avoid overly curious sea otters. They may bite!

The winning limerick will best encapsulate these guidelines within a traditional limerick scheme. 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 an example:

As you paddle today up the slough,

Keep in mind these 3 things you must do:

Give sea otters some space,

Know they may bite your face,

And Jetty Beach landings won’t do

To facilitate creativity and insure clarity, the guidelines will be included as written above at the bottom of the final sign. While offcolor limericks may entertain the judges, they will not be considered for the contest. A panel of Sea Otter Savvy advisers will review and choose the winner. The winning limerick will be featured on three signs to be placed at key watercraft access points in the North Harbor. Submit your entry through Sea Otter Savvy’s Facebook Messenger, or via email to with “Sea Otter Savvy Limerick Contest” in the subject line. Entries must be received by midnight, September 15, 2017 to be considered. Get out and rhyme!

mbk level 1 larochephoto by Nicole LaRoche

Limerick Contest Winners!

limerick winners 400x261 2First place winning Limerick by Laura Horton

In honor of Sea Otter Awareness Week and National Poetry Day, we are pleased to announce the winners of our Limerick Rhyme-fest! The top three winners received the highest scores from our Sea Otter Savvy judges. All three winning Limericks will be featured on new signs that will be installed at marine recreation access points in Moss Landing Harbor early next year. These Limericks were clever, adhered best to the meter and rhyme form of a Limerick, and conveyed the key guidelines as outlined in the instructions. We received over 60 entries and had a lot of fun reading all of them. A hearty giggle and a "Well done!" to all participants!

We are planning to make this contest an annual event, with new winning Limericks selected to keep the signs fresh and anticipation keen. Start thinking up your rhymes for next year!

Here are the winners. Enjoy!

First Place, by Laura Horton

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’.

 

Second Place, by Josh Silberg

When you’re out enjoying the water

Beware the inquisitive otter.

They might take a bite

Though not out of spite

Some just get more close than they ought'er

 

Third Place, Amanda Frederick

If you see sea otters at play,

Please stay a safe distance away.

No matter the cuteness

Please practice astuteness,

And don't to the Jetty Beach stray

 

Here are a few of our favorite Runners Up:

By Kyle Reynolds-

If you value your flesh you'll concede,

That our laws are for you to take heed,

Because otters get pissed

When you're up in their midst

And they know how to make paddlers bleed.

 

By Armen Varteressian-

If your family's out for a day

On the beautiful Monterey Bay

Tell your sons and your daughters

"Don't bother the otters -

They could hurt you just thinking it's play."

And...

On otters and ferrets, and stoats

There are furry and fabulous coats

But while ferrets are pets

And stoats are no threat

It’s the otters who’ll chew up your boat

By Roxanne Varteressian Joe- 

There once was an otter named Jason,

And we know it’s tempting to chase him.

But please stay away,

Let him swim, dive and play.

Never get so close that you face him!