See What Sea Otters Do When No One’s Looking

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It’s not hard to drum up love for sea otters with their furry little paws, inquisitive expressions, and playful demeanor. But despite the attention and money lavished on this marine mammal, they still have a long way to go.

Campaigns such as the current Sea Awareness Week—which runs from September 20 to 26—aim to help people see past the adorable surface of a and into the deeper conservation issues these animals face.

The fur trade decimated sea otter populations starting in the 1700s, eventually exterminating them from most of their historic range. They once stretched from Japan through Russia across to Alaska and down into Baja California.

By the early 1900s, the sea otter was thought to be extinct off of California. However, in the 1930s, people started seeing a small group of them near Big Sur (shown above).

Some population counts revealed about 50 otters along the central California coast, says Michael Harris, a sea otter biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife who is based in Morro Bay near San Luis Obispo.

“They formed the parent population of what we have today,” he says.

Now two subspecies inhabit coastlines from the Kuril Islands (map) in Russia over to the Aleutian Islands and down into Washington state, while the third lives off of California.

If you’ve ever wondered what these furry marine mammals do all day, look no further than the following seven pictures.

The Thinker Sea otters can be fairly ingenious, doing things like using rocks to hammer away at shellfish. In fact, the animals will use just about any hard surface to break open dinner, including boat hulls and aquarium glass. Photograph by Tim Fitzharris, Minden Pictures
Still Here – Sea otters were considered extinct in the early 1900s until a rancher spotted a small population (pictured) off of Big Sur, California, in 1938. Photograph by Pat Hathaway, National Geographic Creative
Northern Cousins – The northern sea otter, shown here in Kodiak Island, Alaska, is doing better than their southern cousins, says sea otter expert Michael Harris. This is partly because the northern otters have more room to expand their populations. Photograph by Roy Toft, National Geographic Creative
Dive! Dive! Dive! Another reason southern sea otters (pictured) are struggling is the great white shark, says Harris. “The last ten years, the biggest impact to the California population has been mortality related to white shark bites,” he says. Photograph by David Doubillet, National Geographic Creative
An Anchor – Although sea otters will frequent sandy areas, they’re often found hunting, grooming, and even sleeping in and around kelp forests. In fact, the animals will wrap themselves in kelp fronds to keep from floating away while they nap. Photograph by Norbert Wu, Minden Pictures
Dinner – Sea otters are important parts of the kelp forest ecosystem off of California. They prey on animals including crabs (pictured) and help keep urchin populations in check so that the spiky animals don’t mow down kelp forests. Photograph by Norbert Wu, Minden Pictures
Mom – A sea otter mom is a good parent. Recent research has shown that moms can expend so much energy keeping their pup fed, they have to forage about 14 hours a day. Photograph by Frans Lanting, National Geographic Creative

This article was first published by National Geographic on 19 Sep 2015.


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