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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

Sea Otters Societies: They are a lot Like Us!

sea otter society intro

By Claire Mayer and Gena Bentall

Many of us who are fortunate enough to reside along California’s beautiful coastline can often be found admiring the familiar furry face of the southern sea otter. We love watching them float effortlessly on their backs, allowing the ocean’s great swells to pass beneath with ease. From a pier above, we watch curiously as they crunch away on something tasty, wondering what it could be. We see that little cluster (properly termed “raft”) sleeping soundly in a bed of giant kelp. We feel luckiest of all when a mother sea otter paddles into view with a fluffy pup riding on board her belly. We cannot contain our silent (or not so silent), “Awww!”, and imagine the life of the sea otter as a continuous frolic in calm seas with seafood always on the menu. For many this is as far as sea otter observation goes and still it is often enough to leave us with love for these charismatic creatures. However, for scientists who spend their lives studying these marine mammals, the respect and awareness runs deeper. Underneath the whiskers, behind the pretty faces, there is a fascinating and complex society at work just beyond the waves.  

sea otter society older mom cropAged female sea otters may be the human equivalent of 80 years old and still rearing pupsFor most of us, the idea of living life as a sea otter is too foreign to even imagine. Our terrestrial nature limits our understanding of a life aquatic. However, sea otter biologists have learned over years of research that the behaviors of sea otters are in some cases more relatable to humans than one might think. Just picture that teenage boy being bullied by a group of older boys for hanging out in their spot or sitting at their lunch table. Imagine a single mother working three jobs to feed her child with no child support from dad. Can you imagine an 85-year-old grandmother raising a baby on her own? These situations are everyday realities for sea otters and are not such foreign concepts for us humans. Even in this ocean world of kelp beds and great white sharks at the door, we can find some common ground and better understand their struggle.  Our new blog series, Sea Otter Society, will focus on different aspects of the everyday lives of sea otters and provoke some recognition of aspects of our own struggle for survival. Our hope is that by understanding how the southern sea otter population or “society” functions, we will gain more understanding, empathy, and awareness.

Sneak peek at future Sea Otter Society topics:

"The Single Mom's Club" - An intimate look into the lives of sea otter mothers and what caring for their pups in the wild involves.

"Boys in the Hood" - A look at what it is like to be a male otter in the wild competing with other males for territories and mates.

"The Breakfast Club" - Food, glorious food! The caloric and foraging demands of the sea otter. 

"Grumpy Old Men" - What happens to those old man sea otters and how they survive losing their territories. 

"The Old Lady Who Lived in the Shoe" - A glimpse into the lives of old sea otter mothers and how they never stop caring for pups.

About guest blogger Claire Mayer: Claire was born and raised in Monterey, California. She is a former animal care volunteer with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Otter Research and Conservation program. She currently works as a Veterinary Assistant in Carmel, California. 

Coastal Wildlife Guardians: Stronger Together

symposium four panel

If we are to use our tools in the service of fitting in on Earth, our basic relationship to nature--even the story we tell ourselves about who we are in the universe--has to change.                                                                                                                                                                                                                               -Janine M. Benyus

On the 5th of November 2018, wreathed by an enthralling view of the fog-shrouded Monterey Bay, a group of people gathered at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with the common goal of protecting the wildlife of the symposium audienceAttendees of the 2018 Symposium fill the room at the Monterey Bay AquariumCalifornia coast and beyond. The participants at the 4th Annual Central California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium came to hear presentations from 19 different speakers describing wildlife disturbance issues and ideas for solutions. They came to participate in problem-solving groups to brainstorm solutions to real-life human-wildlife conflict scenarios.  They came to meet others from government agencies, non-profit organizations, and local businesses to find common ground, common goals and ways to work together to foster awareness and stewardship.

Presenters brought news from up and down the California coast and as far afield as Australia: We learned about the dangers to nesting snowy plovers posed by the activities of human beach goers. Speakers shared their challenges for balancing the needs of humans and wildlife at popular wildlife viewing places like Pt. Reyes National Seashore and Pillar Point Harbor. We heard about tips for flying drones responsibly around wildlife, the road from notion to on-the-ocean for the SeaLife Stewards, collaboration to foster Seabird SAFE pilots, and bringing the message of wildlife stewardship to schools. A productive group discussion tackled the sometimes-controversial minimum safe viewing distance for sea otters. We were given a behind the scenes look at the development of the engaging Sometimes a Long-Distance Relationship is the BEST Relationship campaign created by the National Park Service in collaboration with Colorado State University. The California Academy of Sciences shared how citizens science is helping bring awareness to the fragile life in tidepools All who attended left with knowledge buckets full and idea baskets overflowing.

selfie cat elk funnyMeme from the National Park Service "Long-distance relationship" campaignBuilding on a seabird-focused Wildlife Disturbance Symposium organized by Seabird Protection Network in 2013, Sea Otter Savvy has partnered with the Seabird Protection Network and California State Parks to organize this wildlife disturbance symposium since 2015. Our goal from the start
has been focused on maximizing the effectiveness of diverse efforts to mitigate human-caused disturbance to coastal wildlife by fostering agreement upon common strategies and messaging, creating a forum for the sharing of new ideas, and supporting collaboration.  After a full day or talks and group activities, attendees were invigorated and inspired to return home with new solutions and connections. With human population steadily on the rise, our wildlife need champions more than ever. In this fight, we are stronger together.


 Thank-you to all the heroes who work everyday to promote stewardship. Here are some of the participants working toward peaceful coexistence between humans and wildlife in the 2018 Central California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium: 

Seabird Protection Network
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Sealife Stewards
California State Parks
Moss Landing Marine Laboratories
Friends of the Sea Otter
California Department of Fish & Wildlife
California State Coastal Conservancy
Fast Raft
Point Blue Conservation Science
San Mateo County Parks
Save the Whales
US Fish & Wildlife Service
Monterey Bay Aquarium
MPA Collaborative Network
National Park Service
Humboldt State University
California Academy of Sciences
Deakin University
Camp Keep
Monterey Bay Kayaks
The Marine Mammal Center
Sea Otter Savvy

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

Happy 3rd Birthday, Sea Otter Savvy!

birthday cake

On August 15, 2015 Sea Otter Savvy came to life! Our roots are nourished by our origin within the Southern Sea Otter Research Alliance, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Friends of the Sea Otter. Those agencies and organizations that provided the initial boost we needed continue their support today and we have made many new friends and partners! Today we celebrate our 3rd birthday and share with you our pride in what we've accomplished and our enthusiasm for the future!

Here are some of the highlights from our last three years:

Read the full Sea Otter Savvy portfolio



 Sea Otter Savvy teamed up with Eyes on Conservation and Wild Lens to create an informational video to help educate coastal visitors on the etiquette of Sharing Space with Sea Otters.

Sea Otter Savvy partnered with Wild Lens, Eyes on Conservation and the conservation musicians the Whizpops to create a fun animated music video that educates about sea otter natural history and how humans should respect this protected marine mammal.




Learn how you can become part of the Sea Otter Savvy in the Classroom team



Learn more about how and why sea otters are at risk on coastal roads.


Learn how a diverse group worked together to safeguard a tiny beach in Moss Landing for shore-napping sea otters (and many other species).


Read more about the Central California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposia


Are you a rhyme-smith? Keep an eye out for 2019's limerick contest! Read more about our 2017 contest.

Coming soon: Morro Bay "Dive In" panels and diver guides

Sea Otter Savvy has joined forces with California State Parks, Seabird Protection Network-Pt. Sur to Pt. Mugu Chapter, and Morro Bay National Estuary Program to create informational panels for divers in Morro Bay at popular marine recreation access points at Target Rock and Coleman Beach. 

These beautiful AND educational panels will be going up soon!

Coleman Beach 8 2 18small

Sea Otter Savvy is more than just our staff and volunteers! We are all the organizations, agencies, businesses, and individuals who work together to protect our wildlife neighbors. Together we are making California's Central Coast a place where everyone can observe and enjoy wildlife respectfully and responsibly. We at Sea Otter Savvy are looking forward to many more years!

calm sea otter viewing