Chapter 1: The Ocean is Cold but Mom is Warm
“This puff of fuzz, a newborn southern sea otter, looks like a toy. A tiny nose, a tiny mouth, and tiny squeezed-shut eyes are barely noticeable through her thick fluff. Arms with paws, legs with webbed feet, ears, a tail, and the beginning of whiskers poke through her dense coat. She wants her mother, but there is only ocean in sight.”Start Chapter »
“Eeee, eeee, eeee!” come birdlike calls, drifting from somewhere between peaks and troughs of waves off of the rocky coast of California. But these sounds aren’t songs. They are distress signals that pierce the coastal fog but go unanswered.
These needy cries aren’t from a bird hatchling. Instead, this baby has fur, not feathers.A pup cries for its mother to come back from a dive
The fur ball, the color of wet driftwood, repeats, “Eeee, eeee, eeee!” The frightened sounds are more like the rhythmic beeps of a homing beacon, not something you expect from an animal.
This puff of fuzz, a newborn southern sea otter, looks like a toy. A tiny nose, a tiny mouth, and tiny squeezed-shut eyes are barely noticeable through her thick fluff.Sea otters do some unbelievable things
Arms with paws, legs with webbed feet, ears, a tail, and the beginning of whiskers poke through her dense coat. She wants her mother, but there is only ocean in sight.
A minute later, mom surfaces alongside her. They roll around each other, while mom clutches a crab, freshly caught from her underwater foray.Meet Katie Pofahl who hosts many exciting videos
Not far up the rugged, rocky coast, blood stains the water.
A dozen sea otters in a nearby raft react like zebras on the plains of the Serengeti going on alert when a lion prowls.Something alerts a raft of sea otters
As the sea otters circle in place, they also swim straight up to rise like periscopes with their heads high above the water. Their heads swivel as if their eyes are searchlights cutting through thick marine fog.
Mom squeezes her pup tightly and sculls closer to the otter raft.Want to find out more sea otter basics?
Up the coast from the sea otter raft, elephant seals that hesitate onshore begin to feel at ease and enter the water. Those lingering far offshore now start back from sea.
A great white shark, one of the ocean’s most fearsome hunters, swims away– but not before reducing the elephant seal population by one.Elephant seals are giants among seals
Elephant seals are at the top of the menu for great white sharks. Unlike the movie Jaws, great whites don’t circle their prey or breach the surface with their huge dorsal fins to announce their arrival before they strike.
Great whites stalk their prey from below, looking for the distinct outline of elephant seals. And when they see their targets, they launch like rockets up to the surface.One of the ocean’s most fearsome hunters
The mom and pup are safe for now. But great white attacks on sea otters are on the rise even though, surprisingly, sea otters aren’t something these sharks like to eat.
Attacks might be a case of mistaken identity, or perhaps the result of a shark’s natural curiosity or play behavior. But these taste tests often prove fatal to sea otters, even if the sharks let go after an initial bite.A pup must be rescued after a shark attack
A sea otter is not a hunk of blubber like the massive elephant seal. This is why great white sharks don’t eat them. But that blubber on elephant seals is an amazing insulator from the cold ocean water.
Without this layer of insulation, sea otters must rely on their very special fur and their high metabolism to keep warm. This means otters must eat a lot.A closer look at the extraordinary behavior of sea otters
An adult sea otter must consume 25 to 30% of its body weight in seafood every day.
But this mother sea otter also has to supply enough milk to the pup. Mom has to eat for two.A closer look at things sea otters like to eat
The hair on the pup is similar to the down feathers of a newborn penguin. A newborn penguin cannot swim until its down feathers are replaced by swimming feathers.
The pup cannot swim either. She only floats.
Her coat of pup fur is long and fluffy, which makes her so buoyant she cannot dive even if she wants to.It takes some time for a pup to dive
Called a “floater,” the only thing the pup can do is wait on the surface until her mother returns after gathering food, trip after trip.
The pup’s high-pitched calls carry for a hundred yards or more, even in areas of heavy, noisy surf.The wild environment and harsh conditions the pup faces
Though mom doesn’t stay underwater for more than a few minutes for each dive, the time the pup is by herself adds up quickly.
And a newborn left alone can get herself into trouble, especially in such an unforgiving environment as the great Pacific Ocean.
In the dark of night, the pup bobs like a piece of driftwood, at the mercy of the waves and wind. But this time, her piercing cries go unanswered.
She is swept closer and closer to the shore by never-ending wave after wave until there’s no more ocean. Only sand. She is cast ashore.Here's great advice on how to watch sea otters in the wild
Unable to swim, the pup is trapped on land amidst tumbled fragments of giant kelp. The surf tosses her like a beach ball at each attempt to return to the ocean.
Alone, the pup can only survive for a few hours. Her mother is nowhere to be seen.
That Threat Could Be You!
Pledge to keep in mind these five basics tips from NOAA and the National Marine Sanctuaries:
- Keep your distance
- Watch quietly
- Stay away from animals that appear sick, injured, or abandoned
- Don’t feed wildlife
- Keep pets on a leash
Responsible wildlife viewing is critical to animal health. Sea otters, and especially their pups, are among the cutest animals. So, it is natural for people to want to get a closer look. But in nature, even getting close can be dangerous to the health of sea otters and other wildlife.
Video Clip: A Sea Otter Pup Calls for Mother
All alone in the ocean, a sea otter pup calls for its mother. But the mother is not gone for long. From somewhere underwater, she resurfaces and returns to her pup. Sea otters typically don’t dive deeper than 30 to 40 feet in search of food. So, they usually stay close to shore and don’t venture too far out into the open ocean.
Cool Otter Facts
- In some places such as Elkhorn Slough, sea otters have been known to haul out on land to rest, sleep, and sometimes forage.
- Sea otters can eat so many purple sea urchins over their lifetime that their teeth and even some bones can turn purple.
- One of the few animals to use tools, sea otters often use rocks to smash open clams and dislodge abalone.
- Sea otters have a small pouch under each armpit where they sometimes store their favorite rock. But also when they dive, they use these pouches to collect armpits full of prey to eat when they get to the surface.
- A group of sea otters floating together is called a raft.
- Sea otters can swim on their bellies on the surface. But often sea otters prefer to swim on their backs not on their bellies.
- When sea otters swim on their backs, they swim backwards.
- Sea otters must eat 25% of their body weight, every day, to stay alive.
- Sea otters have the densest hair compared to any mammal, up to 1 million follicles per square inch.
- Fur does not fully cover the face, paws, and flippers of sea otters. So when sleeping or resting, they are able to keep these all out of the water.
- Even when sea otters roll onto their bellies and all the way around to their backs again, they are able to keep their face, paws, and flippers dry.
- Sea otters are a member of the Mustelidae family so they are closely related to weasels and minks.
Interview: Introducing webStory Host Katie Pofahl
Meet Katie Pofahl, costar of the film Otter 501, and the host of many of the videos you’ll see here on Otter 501: A webStory. Do not miss the mini docs—short documentaries on sea otter basics, behaviors, and many other interesting topics.
Video Clip: Sea Otters are Always on Guard
Whether by themselves, in a pair, or even in a large raft of many sea otters, they must keep a sharp watch out for danger. When something, or somebody, gets too close, sea otters go on alert. And if the threat continues to move closer, they will flee by swimming away or diving underwater.
Mini Doc: Sea Otter Basics
Discover more about sea basics as naturalist, Ron Eby, takes Katie on a boat ride in Elkhorn Slough.
Video Clip: Great White Shark
Where you find large populations of elephant seals, you’ll find areas that great white sharks like to visit often. Pups and juveniles are easy prey for the sharks. And while sea otter deaths due to great white shark attacks have gone up to 30% in the last few years, as determined by recovered carcasses, there is little evidence that sea otters are actually being eaten by the sharks. Scientists theorize that sharks may attack sea otters because they are mistaking the sea otters for small seals. A great white shark is an ambush predator, lurking below its intended prey, and often tracking silhouettes on the surface of the water.
Video Clip: Elephant Seals
Northern elephant seals are the largest seals in the northern hemisphere, weighing as much as 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds). The deepest dive recorded for an elephant seal was 5,141 feet, and lasted 2 hours. Scientists have found that when these seals dive deeply, they actually can sleep on the way down. They have an enormous amount of blubber to keep themselves warm in the cold Pacific Ocean, which is also used as a food reserve for long periods when they don’t eat. That blubber is a delight to great white sharks, and elephant seals’ young are a favorite prey.
Video Clip: Pup Water Rescue
When a surfer reports a dead sea otter offshore, the Monterey Bay Aquarium dispatches a team. They discover that the sea otter had been attached by a shark. But there’s more.
Video Clip: Sea Otter Buffet
Not all seafood is the same to sea otters. It takes a different amount of time and energy for sea otters to find different kinds of prey. And, the nourishment value for each kind of prey is also different. These differences become very important to sea otters, who have to eat so much, relative to their body weights, in order to stay alive in the cold water.
Mini Doc: Sea Otter Behavior
Naturalist Ron Eby reveals some enlightening details about sea otter social structure, mating, and other interactions.
Video Clip: This Pup Can’t Dive
Newborn sea otter pups’ coats are so fluffy that they are unable to dive at first. As they get bigger, stronger, and start shedding, they get better at diving. Watch as this pup tries to dive.
Safe Viewing of Sea Otters and Marine Mammals
While it can be very tempting to get close to sea otters and other marine mammals, it is not just a bad idea, it is against the law. These animals are federally protected by laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. It is illegal to disturb them or cause them to change their behavior.
As shown in this photo of a rescue by Karl Mayer from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, only those with the proper qualifications can legally handle marine mammals.
Here are five important tips to follow when viewing all marine mammals (provided by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary):
Keep your distance!
You’re too close if an animal starts to stare, fidget, or flee. Slowly back away and stay at least 150 feet, or 46 meters, away. Seals on land are especially wary and may rush into the water or abandon their pups, threatening the pups’ survival.
Rest is important, especially for moms and pups, and you’ll see more of their natural behaviors.
Stay away from animals that appear sick, injured, or abandoned.
Some animals beach themselves on purpose to rest. Mothers often leave pups behind while feeding offshore. Even a lone pup is probably not abandoned!
Don’t feed wildlife.
Human food can attract them and make them sick, a potentially dangerous situation for all.
Keep pets on a leash.
Pets can disturb or harm wildlife, or may cause mothers and pups to get separated. Wild animals can injure or spread diseases to pets.
And if you do come across a sea otter that appears to be sick, injured, or abandoned, then the Monterey Bay Aquarium recommends the following for how you can help:
Do not touch!
• Sea otters have sharp teeth and will inflict a severe bite.
• Prevent other people and dogs from approaching a stranded sea otter.
• If people approach and touch a stranded sea otter pup, its mother will abandon it.
• Do you see any wounds/injuries?
• Is the otter conscious/alert?
• Is the otter vocalizing?
• Do you see other sea otters in the area?
• Do you see colored tags on the otter’s rear flippers?
Call the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
• Sea Otter Stranding Line: 831-648-4829 (8 am to 8 pm)
• Security: 831-648-4840 (24 hours)