Otter-cam peers into protected Elkhorn Slough
The sea otter (Enhydra lutris) is perhaps the most charismatic of megafauna. It holds hands with its fellows as it backfloats on the waves, paddling idly with a foot, and tows its babies around in an almost cartoonishly adorable furry embrace. It uses tools to crack the open its shellfish meals and tumbles like a circus contortionist in relentless pursuit of clean (prerequisite of warm) fur. It is a predator that looks like a cuddly stuffed animal.
Despite the benefits of human-appeal in a human-dominated world, sea otters are having a hard time.
Once numerous from northern Japan and Kamchatka, across the Aleutian archipelago, and down the Pacific coast of North America to Baja, sea otters now occupy only small enclaves of their historic range. In California, the southern sea otter never really recovered from the eighteenth and nineteenth century demand for otter furs that induced people to hunt them to near extinction. Fewer than 3000 live in a short range concentrated around Monterey.
At Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, otters (and seals,fish, birds, and other coastal critters) find a refuge of mashes and mudflats in the center of busy Monterey Bay. Its keepers @elkhornslough have recently set up an “otter-cam” to give researchers, enthusiasts, and the curious public a window on otter comings and goings.
Otters turn up to cavort for the camera at high tide, for which the reserve has provided a helpful tide table.
While waiting for live otter action, you can watch high quality recorded footage in the “Otter 501” episode of PBS’s Nature, featuring the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s otter rescue squad and its efforts to raise and repatriate orphaned sea otter pups. Tucked in amongst the furry, whiskery adorableness are nice tidbits of science.
The sea otter has a particular appetite for sea urchins, whose spiny purple armor discourages most predators. Without sea otters, unchecked hordes of urchins have chewed through entire kelp forests, leaving rocky barrens. This cascade of effects has brought the sea otter fame as a keystone species.
The heaviest member of the weasel family must dive all day, eating and eating, to burn enough calories to stay warm in the cold Pacific. As a consequence of its diet of filter feeders, the sea otters of Elkhorn Slough get a high dose of agricultural and industrial contaminants. Pollutants, habitat loss, parasite load, and shark bites have been proposed as explanations for the California otters’ sluggish recovery in comparison to their Alaskan cousins. Their high mortality is a topic of pressing research at UC Santa Cruz and USGS’s Western Ecological Research Center.