Californian Sea Otters are the cutest animals on the entire planet. Not koalas, with their vicious claws, not bunnies that chew their own doo-doo, but sea otters.
I saw wild sea otters in California in January 1995. First we saw them playing in the wild waters off the cliffs of the pacific coast highway. The wind was blowing and the rain crashed down. The waves were twelve feet high and blasting the rocks. We went down to the sea to take some pictures. We spotted these blobs floating in the water. Binoculars out. Otters. Ducking and diving in the surf. Riding the waves. Smiling, looking at us. They were wondering how we walked on the dry land just as we were wondering how they spent most of their lives on water.
We saw more otters at Santa Cruz, out with the surfers in the calmer waters of a sunny evening. Three of them, flipping under the rising waves, diving deep and coming up with some tasty morsel, cracked open on their chests and munched up.
I want to go back to the Pacific sometime and say hi to the little creatures again.
Here are some pictures and some otter links.
The sea otter, Enhydra lutra, is a well known inhabitant of the coastlines of California and Alaska. These adorable creatures, quite distinct from the various species of river otter that inhabit Europe, Asia and the Americas, were hunted nearly to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries for their soft fur. From a few scattered colonies, they are making a slow but steady comeback.
The otter lifestyle is simple but enviable. Most of their life consists of eating, grooming, playing, and sleeping. For mother otters, these activities extend to their pups, who are completely dependent on them for about a year after being born. Let's look at the major otter activities in detail:
Since otters spend their entire lives in frigid water, they must maintain a high metabolic rate to keep warm. This, in turn, means that they must eat constantly - nearly a third of their body weight every day! Although otters will eat almost any kind of marine animal, most individuals specialize in a few species, and tend to favor slow moving prey such as snails and crabs over the speedier fishes.
For otters, cleanliness is a matter of life and death. A tiny soiled spot on their pelt can lead rapidly to hypothermia, so they are fastidious about grooming every square inch of their bodies several times a day. Besides keeping their fur clean and shiny, it is essential that their undercoat trap enough air to keep them bouyant and well insulated. This is accomplished by fluffing their fur and blowing air directly into it. Their loose skin, which is of a much larger area than would seem necessary, allows them to pull into reach any areas that might be otherwise inaccessible.
Otters are very silly animals, and lead lives of constant play and merriment. The otters around Monterey, who have grown accustomed to human presence, will often play with divers and sea kayakers, perhaps looking for a handout. One pair of otters was even observed trying to tip a kayaker over, much to his distress.
Otters usually sleep by wrapping themselves in kelp to ensure that they do not drift away. They typically sleep in the early morning, afternoon, and evening, with periods of activity inbetween.
Anyone who has seen otters having sex knows that they have a lot more fun doing it than humans do. Otter love tends to be a bit violent, with the male otter biting the female on the nose and holding her underwater for extended periods of time. This alternates with bounding, playful chases through the kelp as the female otter tries to get away. But she doesn't try very hard, and it's never very long before the male catches her again. As the picture above illustrates, the female's nose takes a real beating. This leads to permanent scars by which individual otters can be identified.
The male otters get off easy; half an hour of fun, and they're back to business as usual. Not so for the female, who has to care for a completely helpless pup for up to a year. The maternal instinct in otters is so strong that they are sometimes seen mothering inanimate objects such as fishing floats and beercans. When a real pup comes along, there is usually only one at a time; in the few cases where twins are born, the mother will find that two pups are impossible to manage, and will let one of them drift away in the tide, hopefully to be rescued by a marine biologist and raised in captivity. Otter pups are demanding, bossy, noisy, and impatient, and keep the mother constantly busy as she tries to feed her pup and keep it groomed.