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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach


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.

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





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:


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



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