Welcome Back, Otter

By Seth Heller

Ah, the sea otter. A small bundle of soft, gray-brown tufted fur topped by a pair of tiny, quizzical black eyes, above floppy, water-dripping whiskers. Bobbing gently in an eddy in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington, he’s just a wet head peeking out of the water holding his tiny soft-padded paws in the air for balance. With a “What me worry?” expression and a habit for playful antics that make grown men and women squeal like they just got their first puppy, sea otters are hard not to love. They also happen to be a keystone species, which means while they’re seriously cute, they’re also seriously important to the ecological health of near-shore marine ecosystems.

You already know your love for sea otters might rival that of your first child, favorite pair of jeans, the Blazers – maybe even Oreos. But, in order to appreciate the whiskered balls of fluff that they are, it’s important we know some basic facts about them.

Sea otters are the largest member of the weasel family, which is known as Mustelidae. They are the second smallest marine mammal in the world – the males weigh in at 49-99 lbs and the females at 31-73 lbs. Despite their small size, sea otters are impressively blessed with the densest hair of any animals on earth, including the Kardashians. In fact, sea otters have from 250,000 to a million hairs per square inch. A complex inner-outer layering system that would make a Portland hairdresser jealous keeps otters’ skin completely dry – a neat evolutionary trait that makes up for their lack of a layer of blubber.

Sea otters are a friendly bunch, but they are not as social as you might believe. Think of a sea otter as your friend whom is always up for hanging out and having a good time, but generally keeps to themself. Sea otters spend a great deal of time alone, carrying out their daily rituals of hunting, eating, and making sure their fur looks good. In fact, sea otters spend between 24-60 percent of their day searching for and eating food, and much of the time left over ensuring that their fur is clean and tidy.

So imagine you’re an otter. You hold up your paws in front of your face in amazement – “How did I get so lucky to be reincarnated as this?” you ask the truculent starfish next to you. Never mind, no time to ponder that – you’re hungrier than a college student at Blue Star Donuts. What’s to eat? You dive down to the ocean floor in search of your favorite foods; marine invertebrates, small fishes – suddenly you spot an abalone. After one to four minutes of prying that sucker loose, you bring up your abalone, pull your one-of-a-kind food-cracking rock out of your left arm/belly pouch, and smack the shell with jackhammer precision and intensity for about 45 seconds until… success! Fast-food seafood.

Sea otters are polygynous, meaning that males usually have multiple female partners. Though pregnancy can last between four and twelve months, only a single pup is usually born, and most female otters give birth only once a year. After the pup is born, the female otter is incredibly devoted to her offspring. Mothers shelter their pups on their bellies, keeping them away from the cold water. When not obsessively licking the pup to make sure it has enough air in its fur to float, the mother will forage for food, leaving her infant wrapped like sushi in a strand of kelp to ensure it will not float out to sea.

Eventually life comes full circle, from birth to death – but smile on reader, you can be sure that all otters go straight to heaven. In the wild, a sea otter usually lives an average of about 10-15 years if it’s a male and 15-20 years if it’s a female. While there are many causes of death, ranging from old age, to disease, to predators, it’s the last of the three that almost proved fatal to the species. 

Next, we explore the fur trade and the collapse of sea otter populations along the West Coast, including their extripation from Oregon. View Part Two here!

Photo Credits: 
Photos courtesy of NOAA (banner) and USGS