One animal I run into on a daily basis is one I used to take for granted. This, of course, would be the adorable and charismatic sea otter, or more specifically, the southern sea otter. Since I was born in Monterey, California I never knew a world without sea otters around. Even as their populations were lower a few decades ago, you could still see them anywhere in the kelp forest and in certain estuaries such as Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough. However, I do not see them the same way I used to. In fact, I now appreciate every moment I get to see one from shore, walking down the dock in the harbor, or out at sea simply because we came so close to losing them entirely.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the fur trade was booming and since sea otter carry the densest coat of any mammal on the planet with around 1 million hairs per square inch, they were heavily hunted. The population’s range used to run from northern Mexico (off Baja California) all the way up the coast to Alaska and beyond to the Aleutians, eastern Russia, and northern Japan. There essentially wasn’t a stretch of coast where a sea otter couldn’t be found. At the time, there were around 16,000 sea otters in a fairly stable population, but we annihilated that population to the point where we thought they were extinct. That was it, no more.
At the time, all the fur trappers, hunters, fisherman, conservationists, and so on believed we had effectively wiped out the southern sea otter. Luckily for us, one of the most challenging areas to explore and work upon was not up in the far reaches of Alaska or deep within the Rocky Mountains, but down along the Big Sur coastline. Of course, many know Big Sur to be a beautiful stretch of coastline leading south from Monterey down towards Morro Bay and Los Angeles further beyond, but not many realize just how challenging it was for westerners to conquer. On the land side, the hills are steep, densely packed with forests and tall scrub brush that was difficult to traverse by foot or horse. Around the mid 19th century and the following decades, technology had not progressed far enough to build a road, nor was there really a reason to as the age of tourism had not truly dawned for there to be any demand to really try. On the sea side, the cliffs were even steeper and the jagged rocks and rumbling waves kept sailors at bay in fear of running aground or sinking their ships into the cold Pacific Ocean. This is where the sea otters would make their stand against extinction.
As time went by, we eventually began to construct what would become the Pacific Coast Highway. As the crews continued to make their way down the coast blasting the hillsides and placing the iconic concrete bridges we drive over today, they made a discovery. Near the end of 1931 the engineers were beginning to assemble the famous Bixby Bridge when they looked down upon the sea and what at first glance appeared to be a large kelp bed, turned out to be 30 sea otters rafted together. While there was a good sized group here, we believe there were actually around 50 sea otters under the cliffs of Big Sur. It would be from this small population of otters that we would achieve the conservation success story we have today of restoring the sea otters to a good portion of their native range. Around 3,200 sea otters can be found around the central California coast as of now, all of which are descendants of those 50 sea otters found 90 years ago.
While the otter population will most likely never reach its historic levels or repopulate across the entire length of the western North American coast as it once did, we can rejoice in the strong and stable group we have now. Sea otters are both a keystone and a sentinel species, which means they help keep the kelp forest and all those that live within it thriving, while also helping scientists tell how healthy our coasts are. So next time you see a sea otter, you should feel like the luckiest wildlife watcher alive!
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Hey, I'm Chase Dekker, a wildlife and nature photographer looking to share my stories and expertise with as many people as possible. My blog gives you a glimpse into my life as a photographer - whether it be stories from my travels, or guides on how to make your own trips as successful and special as possible.
I hope to give you valuable insight on everything from travel, to animals, to photography tips and more!