Sea Otters of Monterey Bay

By | Category: Travel destinations

Sea Otters living along California’s Central Coast were, as recently as the 1930’s, believed to have been hunted to extinction. But a colony of about fifty were discovered in Big Sur and, from these animals, otters have made a remarkable comeback in California, particularly, in Monterey Bay. But recent news is not good as the population growth for sea otters has now flat-lined. Lynn visited one of the most popular and famous coastlines in the world to find out more.

Big Sur and Monterey Bay, just south of San Francisco on California’s Central Pacific Coast, are two of the most distinctive and famous coastal destinations in the world. Big Sur is known for its incredible coniferous and coastal redwood forests that plummet down to its craggy, rugged Pacific coastline while Monterey Bay is renowned for its sea life as well as tourist haunts like Monterey Aquarium, Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row.

One of the most intriguing and, dare I say it, adorable wild animals in Monterey Bay is the sea otter. These unique animals possess a dense fur coast that allows them to live their entire lives in and on the Pacific Ocean’s cold water. I visited the Monterey Aquarium to, not only view their sea otter exhibits, but also take a peek at otters in the process of being rehabilitated. I was disappointed to find out that rescued otter pups are kept pretty much in seclusion as human interaction is not conducive to them reacclimatising to the wild. But I was able to observe surrogate mothers being trained in the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Exhibit. Their playful behaviour and constant grooming was delightful to watch. These female otters will adopt a rescued pup and bring it up as one of their own. Twenty one pups have been raised this way and released back in to the wild. A phenomenally good number as, formerly, human surrogates were the only option and had a nearly zero success rate.

There are very few eco-systems in the world (and Monterey Bay is one of them) that possess ‘keystone species’. A keystone species refers to animals that play a unique role in the eco-diversity of the marine or land zone they inhabit. These special animals usually have a disproportionately large impact on their surroundings based on comparatively small numbers.

Sea Otters are just such a species. The Southern Sea Otter is found along the central California coast and is related to the Northern Sea Otter which is found in Alaska and Kamchatka (Russia). Southern Sea Otters were hunted nearly to extinction for their exceptional coats, but a few hardy individuals were able to escape to a few inlets along the rugged Big Sur coastline. They were discovered during the construction of the famous Bixby Bridge in the early 1930’s, a couple of otters being spotted in photographs taken by surveyors.

It took many decades for these furry animals to make a comeback.

But before that comeback, the kelp forests of Monterey Bay had started to die. It took scientists many decades to work out that aggressive urchins, known as urchin barons, were the culprit – eating the kelp at its root along the ocean floor. Sea Urchins are some of the otter’s favourite food, along with clams and other shellfish. The otters lay on their back and use flat rocks that they place on their chests to crack open their prey. Their sharp teeth can penetrate crab or urchin shells easily. They eat constantly in order to get enough energy to keep warm. So the sea otters are vital for keeping the urchin population in check.

I met with Karl Mayer, sea otter expert extraordinaire, at the Monterey Aquarium. As one of the top researchers for SORAC (Sea Otter Research and Conservation), it is Karl’s responsibility to rehabilitate stranded or wounded sea otters that are recovered by the Aquarium. He also keep tabs on the health of the entire population. Karl works with other government organisations and universities, University of Santa Cruz and University of California at Davis, to study the otter population.

I was startled to learn from Karl that after years of recovery, resulting in much of the otter’s former habitat being re-colonised, the population growth is currently at zero. This means the Southern sea otter is classed as a threatened species. But these animals are being intensively studied, including live and dead specimens, and much has been learned about the high rate of adult mortality. It appears it could be from disease, from toxins or pathogens entering the coastal waters, or even white shark predation taking place south of Morro Bay. Also, the lack of range expansion is not helping otters and there has been a loss of genetic diversity from earlier times. The researchers were able to compare the DNA from a contemporary otter with that of an ancient by taking a sample from Indian mittens.

But Karl and his team are soldiering on with their rehabilitation work and there are significant success stories. I am hoping that this will see the otters making another comeback.

As the Aquarium is right on Monterey Bay’s coastline, they have installed an enormous observation platform from which to view the area’s sea life. I spotted otters, wrapped up in kelp so that they wouldn’t drift while feeding, Rossi Dolphins, sea lions, harbour seals and all manner of sea bird – all in the vicinity of the platform. Often whale mothers and calves are spotted here as well. It is truly magical.

The hidden treasure of Monterey Bay is Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing. This sea otter sanctuary is about a ½ hour drive up the coast from the town of Monterey. It is a salt water type of estuary that is fed directly from the Pacific Ocean. Moss Landing itself is a quiet rural area with coastal waters that are teaming with wildlife.

up close and personal © Lynn Houghton

My husband and I arrive early for our kayaking tour on a stunningly beautiful morning and have a look around the marina. As we walked, we could soon hear the barking of Sea Lions and the growling and chuckling of the much smaller Harbour Seals. There were dozens of them all crammed onto one low lying pier.

Just across the road, we spotted a prominent power station which, at one time, was coal fired. The two tall stacks still dominate the landscape. Apparently, in days gone by, the heated and treated water from the plant used to spill over into the Elkhorn Slough causing environmental wreckage. Those days are long gone and now the Slough is completely made up of salt water from the ocean.
A great way to see the sea otters and other animals in the Elkhorn Slough is by kayak. So Hubby and I set out with our tour guide, Connor, on a two hour tour to get up close and personal with the otters. This particular tour is perfect for families costing just $50per person.

We were able to observe remarkable sea otter behaviour from our kayak: barrel rolling (to get air bubbles out of their fur), crab eating while laying on their backs and even spotted an entire raft of sea otters at the far end of the Slough. There must have been twenty or more individuals of all ages all nestled together. A truly impressive sight.

Images © Monterey Bay Aquarium

For more information about Monterey, click here.
For more information about Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, click here.
For more information about kayaking, click here.

Lynn’s visit was sponsored by Monterey County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

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