By Gena Bentall, Sea Otter Savvy director, senior scientist
During the last week of September, we celebrate Sea Otter Awareness Week. Partners all around the world celebrate and recognize this single, distinctive member of the weasel family.
I meet few people who are unaware of their furry faces, shell-smashing and (the somewhat mythological) paw holding behavior, but there’s a lot to appreciate about this keystone species below the surface. Dive a little deeper and you might find a moving story of survival, a lesson in the interdependence of species in an ecosystem and even an inspiring opportunity for you to play a role in creating peaceful coexistence between people and sea otters.
Why should we care about sea otters?
Why care about this little marine mammal? Here are a few reasons to consider recognizing Sea Otter Awareness Week:
- They’re recovering from a species-level disaster. Sea otters globally were nearly extirpated because humans coveted their fur. As they recover their former range, we have it in our power to help or hinder their return.
- As they recolonize, revitalization of coastal ecosystems follows. As a keystone species they exert an influence on their ecosystem that is disproportionate to their small size. We’re only in the early chapters of understanding the extent to which their hearty appetites benefit the places we live, play and find food on California’s coast.
- They’re vulnerable. Characteristics that make them unique among marine mammals also make them especially sensitive to oil spills, pollution, changes in food supply and human disturbance.
- We can make a difference. It can sometimes be difficult to see how our actions help the planet or its residents but, particularly regarding disturbance to sea otters by our recreation, there are simple things we can do to make their world safer and more peaceful.
- If you live on the central California coast, sea otters are your neighbors. I encourage you to reconsider your definition of your community. All the creatures around you are your neighbors. Living on the coast, you’re part of our coastal ecosystem and sea otters are your neighbors. Show them the respect and care all neighbors deserve.
Working with sea otters
I’ve dedicated nearly 20 years of my life to the southern sea otter. Beginning in 2001, I was hired to work as an intern on a sea otter research project based out of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse in San Simeon, California. For over a decade, through employment and graduate school, I spent the better part of every workday watching every intimate moment of their lives in the wild, from the bluffs of our central coast to the remote islands of Russia’s Far East. I was hooked by their intelligence and individuality and heartbroken by the struggle of their daily lives. Those years in the field watching sea otters created the foundation for my approach as their advocate today.
In spring 2014, at the Southern Sea Otter Research Update Meeting in Santa Cruz, California, some of the most influential sea otter agency and organization representatives convened a special working group to address the increasing frequency of disturbance to sea otters by human marine recreation activities.
It was here that the idea of a program dedicated to creating awareness of the unique vulnerability of sea otters to disturbance and fostering an ethic of good stewardship was conceived. Together we agreed that most disturbance is the result of lack of awareness rather than intent to do harm. Most people paddling up to a raft of wild sea otters have little understanding of sea otter behavior and no recognition that their actions may be disruptive and harmful.
Through the collaborative efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and many other partners, a new research and outreach-based program, Sea Otter Savvy, was developed. Since launching in summer 2015, we’ve been developing outreach materials, establishing relationships with stakeholders, giving public presentations, recruiting a community-based science team and conducting research in three central California coastal regions.
How we can coexist with sea otters
Disturbance to the natural behavioral patterns of sea otters can occur anywhere that human marine recreation activities and sea otter habitat overlap. Locations, such as harbors and bays, with easy access to the ocean and calm, protected conditions, are especially alluring to both recreationists and marine wildlife. Sea otters are very charismatic. Viewing and/or photographing them is often a primary goal of marine recreationists. Kayakers, stand-up paddlers, scuba divers, ecotour operators and others are often unaware that the way they behave near otters can disturb important behavioral patterns and result in wasted energy, increased stress and potentially pup abandonment.
Because sea otters don’t store energy in the form of fat, they’re dependent on a delicate balance of energy income in the form of prey and energy expense from activities, such as swimming back and forth to foraging areas, social interaction, fur maintenance and caring for their pups. Like some of us, they live “paycheck to paycheck,” struggling to balance that energy income versus expense equation every day. Swimming and diving to avoid watercraft that approach too closely or too aggressively results in an additional energy expense burden. If this results in an energy deficit, the sea otter must either find more prey to eat or risk losing body condition, which is elemental to good health, disease resistance, reproductive success and survival.
Be sea otter savvy
Why do we need guidelines to coexist with sea otters? Guidelines help people make recommended choices. At the foundation of Sea Otter Savvy’s guidelines are two basic objectives:
- Increase compliance with the laws protecting sea otters from harassment.
- Reduce chronic and potentially harmful disturbance.
Our program is founded on the basic assumption that most people do not wish to inflict harm on sea otters. These guidelines, especially when accompanied by information about why sea otters are vulnerable to the effects of human disturbance, encourage people to choose behavior that promotes stewardship over disturbance.
Maintain a respectful distance from all wildlife. As mentioned previously, specific distance recommendations are hard to make, since wildlife react differently in different places and situations. However, we recommend staying at least five lengths of a kayak (around 20 yards) away from wild sea otters. When in doubt, give them extra space! In addition to maintaining distance:
- Avoid approaching sea otters directly. Maneuvering your craft directly at an otter or raft of otters can be perceived as much more threatening than passing by parallel or obliquely, while keeping a steady pace.
- Do not encircle sea otters with watercraft — they’ll feel trapped. If someone else is already watching the sea otters, wait your turn before approaching and stopping at a respectful distance away.
- Sea otters are much more likely to be disturbed by noisy paddlers, loud music on boats and even noisy observers on shore than quiet wildlife watchers.
- Pay attention! Keep a watchful eye on the sea otters for changes in behavior. If they raise their heads and look at you, they’re warning you that you’re getting too close. Their next step might be to dive and swim away. This guideline is especially important if you are taking photos or video which may distract you from your distance and the sea otters’ behavior.
Understanding the needs of sea otters is most important to help prevent disturbing them, but it’s also important to remember sea otters are protected from harassment by two federal laws, state law and a number of local laws and regulations. Harassing and disturbing sea otters and other marine mammals, even when unintentional, violates the law.
Check out (and share) these videos and other resources about our guidelines:
- Sharing Space with Sea Otters
- Sea Otter Savvy video (fun singalong for kids of all ages)
- Visit the Sea Otter Savvy website
You can help us by promoting the respect for your wild neighbors: know, follow and share guidelines for safe viewing of sea otters and all kinds of wildlife, model responsible behavior when you are on the water and foster an ethic of respect and empathy towards all in our coastal community, human and non-human.
Take the pledge to be Sea Otter Savvy! Do you live far from sea otters? Apply what you’ve learned about respecting space to any wild animals in your neighborhood. Pledge to be a role model for peaceful coexistence with wildlife wherever you live and visit!
Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom visited with Sea Otter Savvy and other sea otter conservation organizations. Check out some pictures and notes from our trip.