A walk along the Morro Bay Embarcadero gives visitors many interesting things to see what with barking sea lions, rapacious gulls winging overhead, and deep diving pelicans. One of the more exciting critters that most people ask about is the Southern Sea Otter. While Morro Bay has always had an otter or two somewhere in the bay, this popular marine mammal has taken to life in our waters more abundantly in the past few years.
Sea otters have had a difficult time co-existing with humans. At one time, they numbered in the hundreds of thousands and could be found from Baja California to the Aleutian Islands. They were found in Central Coast waters too until Russian, American and Spanish fur traders discovered the quality of their dense fur. It is estimated that more than one million otters were killed between 1740 and 1911. They were thought to be extinct along California’s coast until a small group was found at the mouth of Bixby Creek in Big Sur in 1938.
Instead of relying on blubber the sea otter stays warm due to its fur consisting of a luxuriant under-layer of thick brown hairs and a top coat sprinkled with silvery guard hairs. An inch of skin grows approximately 650,000 hairs. Those inner hairs being so thick trap air bubbles and this improves the insulation quality of the fur. Many times, sea otters are seen grooming their coats and rolling over and over in the water. This helps to refill the fur with air bubbles. This air also aids in keeping the animal afloat. An otter’s skin is very loose and this enables them to reach all parts of their fur except the back of the head that they groom with their front and back feet.
A voracious appetite goes along with a high metabolism and sea otters seem to eat continuously when they aren’t grooming or napping. Intense feeding times are usually in early mornings and late afternoon. They dive for their food up to sixty feet and find urchins, clams, crabs, lobsters, octopus, mussels and chiton. A dive can last up to 90 seconds. To break open shelled animals the otter finds and carries a rock placing it on their chest as they float on their backs. They crack a clam or crab on the rock breaking open the shell and consume the contents. Utilizing the large skin flaps under their arms, sea otters can stow their pounding rock while performing repeated dives.
Sea otters can be seen in ocean waters in and near kelp beds and they enjoy swimming in and out of the huge kelp fronds. Giant kelp grows in waters of about 80 feet and uses the rocky bottom for kelp holdfasts. Sea otters also use kelp forests to escape from predators such as sharks and killer whales. One of the big reasons otters like kelp beds is that they use the fronds to wrap themselves in while sleeping on their backs. The kelp aids as an anchor keeping the animal from drifting into the surf.
At one time before being hunted so much sea otters came ashore to have their pups just as seals and sea lions do. Now they rarely come ashore for any reason. Hunters naturally found it easy to club a sea otter on land, but these marine mammals caught on quickly and receded to ocean waters for protection. Now sea otter pups are born directly into the sea.
Some guides list June as the month for sea otter births and others say it occurs in winter. At Morro Bay, it appears that births occur at any time during the year. Very often mothers and pups are viewed floating along in bay waters. Pups are buoyant and cannot dive when young. They are left floating on the surface sometimes wrapped in kelp while the mother dives for food. She is never gone too long and returns to the pup.
Often seen in large rafts in some waters, sea otters really don’t form long-term pair bonds. Mating can be a painful encounter for females as the male sea otter will grab her, biting into her nose as they mate. If you see an otter with a mottled brown and pink, sore looking nose, you can bet it is a female. After mating a single pup is born and remains dependent upon its mother for about a year.
After rediscovery of the sea otters in Big Sur, the Southern sea otter received protection through the Endangered Species Act of 1977 and is also covered under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They are considered a keystone species in that they consume sea urchins which are extremely detrimental to kelp forests.
During the 1980s numbers of Southern sea otters topped out at around 1,700 individuals. Their numbers rose to about 2,300 and stayed there for many years. However, the good news is sea otter populations have increased statewide. Over 3,500 individuals have been counted covering a stretch from just south of Halfmoon Bay to Gaviota State Beach.
If you walk the Embarcadero somewhere around the south t-pier you may see a large raft of otters there. They also hang out near Target Rock across from Morro Rock in the kelp beds there. Mike Harris, Senior Environmental Scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says in 2010 there were about 10 sea otters in Morro Bay. Last year they counted 36 adults and nine pups.