Sea Otters once ruled the Pacific Ocean, but the fur trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought this predator to near extinction. Today they’re slowly coming back from the brink, and scientists are learning more about their pivotal role as one of nature’s keystone species. This book looks at the history, biology, behavior and uncertain future of Sea Otters. Author and photojournalist Isabelle Groc takes us into the field: watching sea otter rafts off the British Columbia coast from a kayak, exploring what makes their fur coats so special, understanding how their voracious appetites are helping kelp forests thrive and, ultimately, learning how Sea Otters are leaving their mark (or paws) on every part of the ecosystem. They might be one of the most adorable creatures in the ocean, but kids will discover how their survival is key to a rich, complex and connected ecosystem.
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Sea otters have the densest fur of any mammal. Unlike other marine mammals they do not have any blubber, so they depend on their thick, water-resistant fur to stay warm in the cold water.
Text copyright © Isabelle Groc 2020
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Title: Sea otters: a survival story / text and photographs by Isabelle Groc.Names: Groc, Isabelle, author, photographer.Description: Series statement: Orca wild | Includes bibliographical references and index.Identifiers: Canadiana (print) 20190173319 | Canadiana (ebook) 20190173327 | ISBN 9781459817371 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781459817388 (PDF) | ISBN 9781459817395 (EPUB)Subjects: LCSH: Sea otter—Juvenile literature. | LCSH: Sea otter—Conservation—Juvenile literature.Classification: LCC QL737.C25 G76 2020 | DDC j599.769/5—dc23
Library of Congress Control Number: 2019947362Simultaneously published in Canada and the United States in 2020
Summary: Part of the nonfiction Orca Wild series for middle readers, this book looks at the important role sea otters play in ecosystems. Readers will learn about the history of sea otters, their recovery from near extinction and how to conserve the species for the future. Illustrated with photos by the photojournalist author.
Orca Book Publishers is committed to reducing the consumption of nonrenewable resources in the making of our books. We make every effort to use materials that support a sustainable future.
Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.
The author and publisher have made every effort to ensure that the information in this book was correct at the time of publication. The author and publisher do not assume any liability for any loss, damage, or disruption caused by errors or omissions. Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyrighted material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions and would be grateful if notified of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.
Front cover photos: Isabelle Groc
Edited by Sarah N. HarveyDesign by Dahlia Yuen
orca book publishersorcabook.com
Printed and bound in South Korea.
23 22 21 20 • 4 3 2 1
eBook by Bright Wing Media
To my parents, who introduced me to the wonders of the sea.
Never Give Up
A Species on the Verge of Extinction
A Voracious Appetite
Bringing Up Baby
A Keystone Star is Born
A World without Sea Otters
Sea Otters, Kelp and Sea Urchins
The Wealth of Kelp Forests
Unexpected Homes, Surprising Friends
At Home in an Estuary
Sea Otters and Seagrass
Salt Marsh in Trouble
Abalone's Best Friend?
Sea Otters and Sea Stars
Living with Sea Otters
Sea Otters vs Humans
Learning to Live with Sea Otters Again
Could There Be More for All?
A Fragile Species
Helping Sea Otters
An Unfinished Story
Table of Contents
My love affair with otters began in the very early seventies when my husband, Michael Williams, and I were touring Australia with the Royal Shakespeare Company. There we were bewitched by the Asian small-clawed otter, and subsequently, on our return home we adopted two at the Cotswold Wildlife Park. Much later, in 2004, I was filming in Vancouver, and on one memorable day I was taken to see the sea otters, who are considerably larger than their Asian cousins. For hours, it seemed, I watched enthralled as two of them floated on their backs, arms linked, while one slept and the other steered and kept watch—an unforgettable experience!
Many years later, every time I drove past the British Wildlife Centre, which is only five miles away from me, I would say, “That man in there’s got otters!” Eventually I visited the centre and discovered to my delight that “that man in there” did indeed have otters!
When I read Isabelle’s book, I discovered that the fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries brought sea otters to near extinction. Today they are coming back, thanks to the protections that have been put in place. Scientists have learned that when sea otters return, they have a tremendous impact on the ecosystem, as a keystone species.
In this beautiful book, Isabelle tells us an important story, one that gives us hope. The story of the sea otter demonstrates that conservation efforts can make a difference and bring a species back from the brink. Young people will be encouraged to see that positive changes can happen and that we can all do something to help preserve our planet. Hope is much needed today!
—Dame Judi Dench
I certainly do have otters at the British Wildlife Centre. Ours, of course, are our own native European otter (Lutra lutra), which was on the brink of extinction in Britain in the mid-sixties. Through a huge national program of cleaning up our polluted waterways, restoring habitat and banning hunting, coupled with a captive breeding and release program, we can now safely say that there are otters once again in every county in Britain—a truly remarkable success story!
Although European river otters and sea otters are quite different, they share a similar story: with hope, care and the persistence of people who have not given up in different parts of the world, these two species have been saved from extinction.
In Isabelle’s book you will find everything you need to know about the sea otter, beautifully illustrated by her amazing photographs. We can’t recommend it highly enough!
—David F. Mills,MBE, founder and owner of the British Wildlife Centre
A northern sea otter in Alaska keeps its paws out of the cold water to conserve heat.
When I first saw shiny dark heads moving on the surface of the water while I was walking a shoreline on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, I was not sure what I was seeing. I thought they were pieces of floating kelp, the large brown seaweed often seen on the west coast of North America. I reached for my binoculars. What I saw was unexpected and magical—about 120 sea otters holding on to each other, floating gently on the water and resting.
Today, people can enjoy watching sea otters on the Pacific coast. This was not always the case, and every time I spot a sea otter, I am reminded that these animals are incredible survivors.
The sea otter symbolizes the large impacts—both positive and negative—that humans can have on wildlife and ecosystems. Sea otters are the smallest marine mammals in North America. Because they have no fat to keep them warm in the cold waters of the North Pacific, they rely on their luxuriant fur coats to survive. But their fur has also been a death sentence. Sea otters were hunted for their valuable pelts to the point of near extinction in the maritime fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fewer than 2,000 sea otters were left at the end of the fur trade. Luckily, a few small remnant populations managed to survive in remote places, and in the early 20th century laws were passed to protect the animals from being killed or harmed. Following active conservation efforts, sea-otter populations have started to recover.
A raft of male sea otters in British Columbia. Females and their pups form separate rafts from males, and the rafts vary in size.
Today sea otters are one of the most widely studied animals in the world. They have shown us that they are able to survive and thrive. They also intrigue us in many ways. After all, they are one of the few non-primate species known to use tools. Their feeding behavior also has broader implications, affecting the entire ecosystem.
A northern sea-otter mother carries her pup on her chest in Alaska for the first two months of its life. She will constantly groom the pup and protect it from the cold water.
Sea otters make a big difference in the world, and the scientists who study them are constantly surprised by what these extraordinary creatures can do. They are truly nature’s ecosystem engineers. Sea otters have demonstrated not only their amazing ability to survive in the face of near extermination by humans, but also their true powers. Their remarkable skills as a predator and huge appetites give them the capacity to profoundly transform the environment everywhere they swim, leading to the rebirth of kelp forests and other habitats in North America. They show us—the humans who came close to destroying them—how important it is to deal with some of the major environmental challenges we face today, including climate change, habitat destruction and pollution.
In this book you will learn about the sea otters’ unique existence and how they leave their mark (or paw print) on the environment in both obvious and subtle ways. Sea otters teach us that everything in the ecosystem is connected, from kelp to seagrass, crabs to bald eagles, wolves to humans. And they show us how complex the return of a top predator can be.
You will meet the scientists studying sea otters, and you will find out about some of the methods they use to learn about these animals. As resilient as they are, sea otters are also seriously threatened in today’s world. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species has classified them as “endangered.” Learning how to live with sea otters and ensure their long-term survival is one of the keys to maintaining a rich, complex ecosystem.
A northern sea otter is resting in kelp in Checleset Bay, BC, where sea otters were first reintroduced.
Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are the smallest marine mammal in North America and the second-largest member of the carnivorous family called Mustelidae. This means that sea otters’ relatives include weasels, wolverines and badgers. There are 13 otter species, including the North American river otter, the neotropical otter, the giant otter and the African clawless otter. People in North America often confuse river otters with sea otters. Yet river otters are quite different from sea otters. They are much smaller than sea otters, they are long and slender with pointed tails, and they never swim on their backs. River otters also come ashore to den, and they eat their prey on land.
Three subspecies of sea otters are recognized: the Russian or Asian sea otter (found in the waters off the Commander Islands in the Bering Sea, the Kuril Islands in the western North Pacific Ocean and the northernmost Japanese islands), the northern sea otter (found from Washington to Alaska) and the southern sea otter (found only in the waters off the California coast).
This northern sea otter off the British Columbia coast is grooming itself. Sea otters have good reason to take care of their coats—they help them stay insulated in chilly waters.
Having escaped extinction and recovered in different parts of their historical range, sea otters have demonstrated how special they are. They may be one of the most adorable creatures in the world, but there is much more to sea otters than cute, furry faces, and they constantly surprise those who observe them.
Most marine mammals, including whales and seals, rely on a layer of fat called blubber to keep them warm. Sea otters don’t. Instead of blubber, they have a dense, water-resistant fur coat to insulate them from the frigid waters of the northern Pacific.
Sea otters have the thickest fur of any animal in the world—as many as one million hairs per square inch. (We humans have about 100,000 hairs on our heads.) The fur has two layers, an undercoat and a layer of long, waterproof guard hairs. This traps warm air next to the sea otter’s skin. Sea otters spend a lot of time grooming and conditioning their fur to maintain that layer of insulating air. Even though sea otters live in water, their skin never gets wet.
A southern sea otter hauls out (comes ashore) on a sandy beach on the central coast of California.
While this special fur coat has protected sea otters against the cold for centuries, it also made them vulnerable to humans who wanted that fur for themselves. In 1741 an expedition led by explorer Vitus Bering came upon a sea-otter population in the Commander Islands off the eastern coast of Russia. The explorers went home with sea-otter pelts, and the luxurious sea-otter fur was soon in high demand throughout Russia, China, Japan and Europe.
A northern sea otter is resting on an iceberg in Alaska.Peter Nile/GETTY IMAGES
For the next 160 years, ships and traders from North America, Russia, Britain and other countries hunted sea otters for their pelts, until the animals were almost wiped out. Nearly 15,000 sea otters per year were killed in the waters off Alaska at the turn of the 19th century.
The fur trade during the 18th and 19th centuries nearly drove sea otters to extinction by the early 1900s. B-03051 Royal BC Museum and Archives
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