Otterly lovely! By Jon Isaacs
It’s interesting which animals have the aaah factor. Pandas definitely have it, probably because they look like a teddy bear. The meerkat, with its upright stature, big eyes, and tendency to fall asleep in the upright position, also has it. Not so well known, but definitely possessing masses of aaah appeal, is the Sea otter. And it was the sea otter that I was hoping to see and photograph whilst on holiday in the sunshine state of California.
Officially, the main reason for this particular holiday was to try and photograph whales and dolphins in the cetacean hotspot of Monterey Bay. As we moved beyond the harbour wall and sailed towards the deep trenches where the humpbacks tended to feed, we passed through kelp beds and, lying on their backs, occasionally waving at us like little old men having an afternoon siesta, was a group of sea otters. It was love at first sight.
Sea otters occur in near-shore waters from Japan, through the Aleutians, south through Alaska, and down the Pacific coast of North America to California. They are the heaviest of all otter species. Before 1741, and the onset of commercial hunting for their dense pelts, there may have been as many as 300,000. By 1911, there were only a few thousand left, protected by international treaty. The survivors were scattered in small groups throughout the original range and whilst some groups recovered in number, others continued to decline. By 2000, there were only about 2000 Californian sea otters left. Much time has been spent in studying them, and attempting to increase the population but success has been limited.
I loved the way that the small group of sea otters I saw in Monterey Bay would anchor themselves to the kelp by wrapping a strand around their bodies. Safely anchored, they could then snooze the hours away. Having seen this group I was enthusiastic when it was suggested that we should take a drive to Moss Landing, where groups of male Sea otters tended to congregate. I thought this would be an unspoilt and remote area, difficult to access, and with flora which would hopefully allow us to sneak up on a few unsuspecting otters. I was somewhat surprised therefore when we parked on a tarmac road next to a sign declaring it an otter crossing. Further surprises were in store as we walked towards a yachting marina and saw in the distance several rafts of male sea otters. No need for the element of surprise then! The most difficult thing about these shots might be trying to avoid getting jetties, coloured buoys or boats in the background.
In order to approach the rafts of male otters, we had to walk along a gravel road which traversed an inlet of narrow channels whose banks were covered by marine plants similar to bog myrtle. As we did so we were amazed to see two pairs of bright button eyes looking at us with curiosity from a few yards. We had stumbled across a female with a large pup in tow (Literally!) She was lying on her back and preparing lunch by walloping a clam on her tummy with her favourite rock. I find it amazing that they apparently have a fold of skin, like a pocket below their armpit, which they can put a clam in, or use as a store for their favourite rock when diving. With a few cracks, the clam was split and she enjoyed her delicacy. Her youngster looked most put out he wasn’t getting any and loudly complained. He then dived and surfaced proudly with a piece of wood. Still some way to go then junior!
We continued until we were as close as we could get to the male sea otters. We witnessed all manner of behaviour. Some otters seemed to be entwined with their best buddy so they didn’t drift apart. Occasionally a vicious fight would break out between two rival males but mainly it looked rather like a regatta with all the otters aligned and going one way, only at some stage to change their mind, turn around, and in convoy drift back towards the area they had earlier left. With their huge whiskers, pale-colored heads and fat little tummies, it really did look like a male senior citizens swimming group.
The last afternoon of the holiday was to be a shopping expedition and exploration of Cannery Row, made famous by John Steinbeck, and the original heart of the sardine industry. Now it consists of shops and restaurants and is one of the most popular places to visit in California. It also houses the legendary Monterey Bay Aquarium. The tanks are massive, show-casing many marine species from around the world. One tank on three levels is connected to a sea otter exhibit. Having descended into the depths of the tank, I could look up and see the otters cavorting on the surface and then diving down to look for food. Their lives consisted of swim, snack, nap, repeat. Their sinuous movement was captivating and, as they moved, they left a series of silver bubbles in their wake. They looked a totally different creature to the rafts of slumbering males I’d seen earlier. As I tried to photograph them, one came up against the glass. Bright, intelligent eyes appraised me and air bubbles streamed off its pelt. Its front paws appeared to be waving me goodbye as it maintained its vertical position in the water. It exuded the aaah factor like nothing else on the planet!