A Raft of Sea Otters

by | May 18, 2019

The Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) has a long and storied past. It is a Mustelid — a weasel. An aquatic weasel. They are mammals that live primarily in the water, floating on the surface along the coasts and inside bays and harbors, diving to the sea floor to look for clams, sea urchins and other edibles.

I’ve been photographing otters since 2006, primarily in Morro Bay and Moss Landing. They are one of my favorite subjects, due to their relative lack of fear of humans and their quirky personalities. The otter populations in both places are often close to the shore easily seen without needing to get on a boat, but that also means that sometimes well-meaning humans get too close. If you see the otters swimming away, you’re too close and you need to back away.

Sea Otters, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otters once lived from the coasts of Mexico all the way around the edge of the Pacific ocean to Japan. Unfortunately, they have one of the thickest furs of any animal, which made them a prize target in the fur trade, especially by the Russians as they explored and settled along the North American coast.

Sea Otter, Moss Landing Harbor, California

The fur trade came close to wiping otters out completely. Today, they are a protected species with populations in Alaska and Northern California. While the populations have been expanding in recent years, they are still considered vulnerable and in need of protection.

Oil spills are a major hazard adn hundreds of otters were lost to the 1989 Exxon spill in Valdez, Alaska. Otters have recently become a more common prey to sharks where the traditional seal populations have shrunk due to changes in climate and ocean temperature.

Sea Otter Mom with her pup, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Unlike seals, Otters don’t have a blubber layer to keep warm. Instead, they depend on their fur, which traps a layer of air that acts as an insulator. This is why when you watch otters in the wild they seem to spend a lot of time preening and manipulating their fur – they are rebuilding that insulation layer of air inside the fur.

Morro Bay Harbor Trip, Morro Winter Bird Festival, California

Otters are social animals, living in loose packs of both the males and females. The animals will socialize with each other through mutual grooming, and you’ll often see otters roughhousing with each other in play fighting.

A sea otter mom holds on to her (very large) pup. Morro Bay Harbor Trip, Morro Winter Bird Festival, California
To be honest, it looks like she’s holding one of those stuffed otter toys you can buy at the aquarium. Or perhaps an Ewok. But it’s her pup, and it’s quite large, almost as large as she is, so it won’t be long before it goes off on its own. This was one of three otters with pups we saw in the otter raft during the harbor cruise; the otter population in Morro Bay seems to be doing well.

Otters have their first pup around the fourth year. Pups stay with their mom for about 8 months before heading out on their own. The mom will often hold the pup out of the water on her chest as they float and rest, keeping it clear of the cold water.

A hunting sea otter has brought up a clam to have for lunch, which has attracted the attention of a western gull who would like to share.

While resting, you will often see an otter wrap itself in the end of a floating kelp frond. This prevents it from floating away in the tide while asleep. Otter moms will do the same with their pups while hunting so they can find them when they return.

Sea Otter Mom with her pup, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otters can live 15 to 20 years in the wild. As they age, the fur on their head often goes lighter blond. If you see one of those in a raft of otters, you’ll know it’s one of the older individuals.

Sea Otter, Moss Landing Harbor, California.
Sea Otters will bring a rock up to the surface and use it as an anvil to crack open shellfish to feed on. This one is being very enthusiastic breaking open the shell.

Otters often hunt muscles, clams and other shellfish. To open them, they will retrieve a rock from the sea bottom and place it on their chest, then proceed to use it as an anvil and pound the clam on it until it cracks.

Sea Otter, Moss Landing Harbor, California

Otters can weigh up to 70 pounds and are about 4 feet in length. They need to consume up to 25% of their bodyweight every day to survive.

The Elkorn Slough Safari boat with Sea Otters, Moss Landing Harbor

Sea Otter Mom with her pup at dawn, Morro Bay Harbor

Sea Otters roughhousing. These otters were wrestling their way through the harbor and having a good play-date. Moss Landing Harbor, California. Note: no otters were injured in the making of these photos.

Sea Otter, Moss Landing Harbor, California

Sea Otter getting a tan and thinking about a nap. Moss Landing Harbor

Sea Otter watching me, Moss Landing Harbor/Jetty Road, Monterey County, California

Sea Otters roughhousing. These otters were wrestling their way through the harbor and having a good play-date. Moss Landing Harbor, California. Note: no otters were injured in the making of these photos.

Sea Otters roughhousing. These otters were wrestling their way through the harbor and having a good play-date. Moss Landing Harbor, California. Note: no otters were injured in the making of these photos.

Sea Otters. Moss Landing Harbor, California

Sea Otters , Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otter Feeding on a Mollusk, Moss Landing Harbor, California

Sea Otter Feeding on a Mollusk, Moss Landing Harbor, California

Sea Otters. Moss Landing Harbor, California

Sea Otters , Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otter, Moss Landing Harbor, California

Look Deeper

If you want to browse larger versions of the images, they are available on my Smugmug site.