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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

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


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