Magazine article Sunset

Where to Watch Sea Otters, at Work and Play

Magazine article Sunset

Where to Watch Sea Otters, at Work and Play

Article excerpt

Fatally beautiful, the rich brown fur that insulates California sea otters against the cold Pacific nearly led to the extinction of the species. Worldwide between 1741 and 1911, almost a million of these highly intelligent marine mammals fell victim to fur traders' guns, spears, and clubs.

Since then, thanks to several protections, their population has gradually increased. But even now, only about 1,700 (including 200 pups) remain off California-- and their management is controversial.

Several easily accessible spots along the Central Coast offer otter views. You can watch them cavort in tbe rolling surf, see them up close at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or join a class for a more indepth look: we give details on all three options. Any such experience will be enriched by an understanding of the history of the otter and the conditions that still threaten its future (see page 72).

How to watch otters

You can spot otters year-round just off California, but winter is pupping season: a mother otter lavishes attention on her pup, hunting for its food, grooming and cuddling the baby dozing on her chest.

Patience is not just a virtue when looking for otters, it's a necessity. The animals are small, few in number, and widely scattered 'Just when you think you're looking for a needle in a kelp bed, a group of otters (known as a raft) might float into view. Note: keep at least 10 yards away from otters; researchers have found them very sensitive to human disturbance. Make sure you have binoculars.

Go to rocky outcroppings or piers in areas with kelp beds. Look carefully, because kelp bulbs and leaves can resemble the otters' heads, Gulls hovering expectantly can give you a clue: they may be waiting for discarded scraps from an otter's meal. In rougher seas, otters congregrate in sheltered coves.

Otters rest midday and feed in early morning or late afternoon. One way to search for them is with your ears: listen for a rhythmic tapping. That's the sound of an otter trying to open a shellfish to get at the good cats inside; the animal floats on its back, puts a stone on its chest, and bangs the shell on the stone until it opens. Otters' tool use is among the most advanced of any animal (they also use stones to pry shellfish ftom underwater rocks).

Where to go to observe otters: in the wild, and not

You can spot otters from areas in the town of Monterey (Fisherman's Wharf to the Coast Guard breakwater is quite good) down to Point Lobos State Reserve. For a close (and guaranteed) look, try the Monterey Bay Aquarium's sea otter facility, which includes a bilevel indoor tank and an outdoor area. You might also spot some wild ones swimming below the aquarium's decks. Be sure to look for the patch of otter fur in the indoor display area; touch it and you'll have some idea why hunters so coveted the pelts. Otters get fed at 11, 2, and 4:30. For information, call (408) 375-3333.

If you live in Southern California and you can't get to the central coast, visit Sea World in San Diego. The park has two otters and an interpretive display.

The Friends of the Sea Otter center is at The Crossroads shopping center on Rio Road at State Highway 1, in Carmel; it's open 10 to 3 daily, noon to 3 Sundays. Here, you can buy otter-centric gifts, as well as learn more about the current state of otter protection. …

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