With their expressive faces and soft, furry bodies, sea otters exude charisma. But when it comes to survival, cute and cuddly doesn’t always cut it.
As few as 2,800 sea otters call California’s waters home. The population descends from a single remaining colony of about 50 hidden amid the crags of Big Sur, out of sight from fur hunters who nearly wiped out the world’s entire population by the early 1900s. Today they are at risk from pollution-caused disease, oil spills and fishing gear.
But even in such small numbers, these marine mustelids—related to weasels, ferrets and minks—have a profound influence on the marine ecosystem, keeping crucial kelp forests healthy by eating urchins that can overgraze. The otters’ diverse diet includes clams, crabs and mussels, which they cleverly crack open with a rock—every otter keeps one tucked away in a chest pouch.
Unlike most of their blubbery brethren, sea otters have fur—the densest of any mammal at up to 1 million hairs per square inch—to keep the chilly waters at bay. Because they can’t afford a bad hair day, much time is spent grooming their “do.” If their fur becomes soiled, it’s no longer waterproof and they can freeze to death. That’s one reason oil spills are so lethal.
Despite these amazing adaptations, California sea otters still need our help to keep their heads above water—so they can frolic and we can be charmed throughout this century and into the next.