Friday, September 7, 2007

Sea Otters: Still Getting the Hang of the Whole “Being a Sea Otter” Thing

My trip to the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in California included a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The bay is home to a remarkable array of sea life, most notably marine mammals like whales, dolphins and seals.

But the aquarium's signature species is the sea otter. There are five on display in a huge tank in the center of the aquarium, but the population fluctuates as otters are brought to the aquarium after being injured or orphaned, then returned to the wild.

I was surprised at the size of the otters. Male sea otters can grow up to five feet long and weigh 100 pounds, about the size of a large dog. Most zoos I've been to have river otters, which are roughly cat-sized. ("I told you. Big suckers!" said The Green Girlfriend, a California native).

Sea otters have the densest fur on the planet, and ironically enough, it almost led to their extinction. They were hunted relentlessly for centuries, cutting their numbers from a peak of as many as 300,000 to a low of as few as 1,000. The global population has rebounded, but are currently stuck at 15,000-20,000 worldwide, mainly along the Pacific, Alaskan, and Japanese coasts.

Scientists are split on why sea otter populations are stuck in neutral, but a marine biologist told us he thinks whaling and overfishing is indirectly responsible. Because killer whales have fewer options, they're turning to sea otters for food.

But on a basic level, the biologist told us, it's hard out here for a sea otter. Their population will never experience explosive growth because, to use an economic term, they live at the margin.

Otters only entered the sea about three million years ago, a short period on an evolutionary scale, and they're still evolving the tools they need to be ocean-dwellers. Otters are barely scraping by on just enough food in water that's just warm enough with fur that's just thick enough to allow them to survive without a layer of blubber (insulating fat) to keep them from hypothermia.

As I've told people I went to see the otters, the first question I've gotten has always been, "Did you get to watch them crack things open on their little tummies?" While I got to see the otters eat lunch, they were fed bits of scallops and squid -- no cracking necessary.

I couldn't help but think of the South Park episode in which Cartman awakens in a future world ruled by super-intelligent otters who threaten him, "I shall smash your skull like a clam on my tummy!"

For more on sea otters and efforts to help them thrive, click here!
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