Monthly Archives: March 2011

In the field: Sea Otter

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In the Field: Sea Otter

© 2011 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

Sea Otter, floating, flat on his back, (feet straight out at a slightly knock-kneed angle), paws folded on his chest, like Charlie Chaplin at his Silent best. Rafting together with all the others he lazes into the hazy morning shift, in sixes and eights, fours and fives and a dozen. Then, buoyant as butter, all drift apart. Sea Otter, that fur bundle, soft and wet and lumpy as a bag of spuds.

As the warmth of the morning paints the bay, otters rub their eyes awake and begin their ablutions. Old Boys dignified of demeanor, widely mustachioed under the nose like the off-white foam of an oversized cappuccino; Subadults, a sophomore class not yet mature enough to sport mustaches of their own; Semi-delinquent Juveniles, rambunctious, rough -wrestling the peace and quiet into turbulent foam. No one seems to mind, it is not Discipline but Clean that is Sea Otter’s credo.

Paws scrub and brush with great dexterity. Even behind the ears and in them, legs and backs and bellies, and under the chin. Arms and elbows; noses and the webbing between the toes. Formidable teeth are flossed bright by fingers brushing like toothbrushes. From the back of the neck to those broad hind feet chewed in the mouth like mukluk leather, not a centimeter is neglected.

In water hovering near 40 degrees (even with the thickest coat known to Nature) after a few hours an otter starts to freeze. The need to maintain Body heat fuels an otter’s hunger, and throughout the day drives him to dive in forests of green kelp and golden water, there to wrest his dinner from the bottom of the sea.

Sea Otter bobs to the surface with his breakfast.  With the most ancient of tools  – the anvilstone balanced on his belly and the hammer of his arms – he will part any shellfish from its flesh. Each otter is a specialist, some preferring crabs, others eating only sea urchins. Many take only sea clams broad as a hat brim, quickly cracked open, chewed and swallowed, then down again for more.

Kelp, the source of all this richness owes its life to Sea Otter. Without him urchins multiply unrestrained, consuming everything, ruling again where they have not ruled in four hundred million years. Even the kelp disappears, forcing evolution back from where it came. If the otter dies out, the Past becomes the Present; a time and place in which humanity played no part, transformed into a Future you don’t want to know.


Mark reading “Sea Otter” on Living On Earth on NPR:

Audio MP3


Back Story: A conversation with Mark about his field work on Sea Otters:

Audio MP3

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Otter Using Anvilstone in Kelp

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As part of the research for this story I interviewed Tim Tinker, who is an internationally known expert on the southern sea otter. We were outside Elkhorn Slough, a large marsh complex on Monterey Bay. It was early and the otter raft was just breaking up to return to foraging. He told me how the otters keep the sea urchins in check and how, where the otters have been killed off, the urchins have obliterated the kelp bed and all the life that depends upon it vanishes. Urchin barrens are a type of sea floor that has not existed for 400 million years, not since the Ordovician. That makes sea otters unique. As well as being driven mostly by climate, to evolve, they are themselves a force in evolution: Climate’s partner. For a long time we watched the youngsters wrestle and tussle and dunk each other like kids in the municipal pool until hunger finally overcame the need to play, and they followed their uncles and fathers and older brothers down the channel, and out to the kelp beds to feed.

Tim Tinker on otters & biodiversity:

Audio MP3