by Friends of the Sea Otter’s guest writer, Gena Bentall, Program Coordinator, Sea Otter Savvy, http://www.seaottersavvy.org/.
For thirteen years as a sea otter biologist, I spent most of the hours of most of my days watching sea otters in the wild. With my telescope on a sandy coastal bluff, cypress covered rocky point, or bustling wharf, I was a distant, secret observer of the lives of sea otters as they went about the business of living: finding food, attending to their insulating fur, raising their pups, and sleeping—at times in the embrace of a frond of kelp and other times seeming so vulnerable adrift on an open sea. But attached to the privilege of insight into the private lives of such a charismatic marine mammal, was a toll I had not anticipated. I must watch, helpless at a distance, the relentless disruption to their natural (and necessary) behaviors by the activities of humans. Together with my sea otter biologist colleagues, I have witnessed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incidents where our recreational activities—kayaking, stand-up-paddling, beachcombing, scuba diving—interrupt the rest, grooming, and foraging of sea otters. I have seen pups frantic as they are separated from their mothers by a well-intentioned family on kayaks who likely would have been horrified to know the trauma they caused. I have seen one raft disturbed time after time in a single day with just enough time to groom their wetted fur and settle into the kelp before the next group of kayaks comes through and flushes them again. I’ve been asked, “If the disturbance is so bad, why don’t they just go somewhere else?”
Sea otters, with their high metabolisms and inability to sufficiently store energy (they do not have the blubber layer seals and whales have), are very dependent on the availability of the marine invertebrate prey upon which they feed for survival day to day. Mothers rearing pups find it especially risky to move to an unfamiliar place, away from human disturbance, to find enough food for themselves and a growing pup. They must adapt, or risk their own life and that of their pup. As a bystander to this, knowing the potential cost to the otters about whom I felt so passionately, I wondered what to do to help. While every person engaging in marine activities should understand the federal and state laws protecting sea otters and other marine life, it is impractical to expect law enforcement to curtail the widespread disturbance that occurs daily in some areas. Shouting at errant kayakers from shore seemed weak and ineffective. It left my voice hoarse, and my disposition unsatisfied that I had solved the larger problem: that, as a community, we need a better, stronger ethic of respecting our wildlife neighbors.
In spring of 2014, at the biennial Southern Sea Otter Research Update Meeting, at Long Marine Laboratories in Santa Cruz, some of the most influential sea otter agency and organization representatives convened a special working group to address the issue of disturbance to sea otters by human marine recreation activities. It was here that the idea of a program dedicated to creating awareness of the unique vulnerability of sea otters to disturbance and fostering an ethic of good stewardship, was conceived. As a group we agreed that most disturbance is the result of lack of awareness rather than intent to cause harassment. Most people paddling up to a raft of wild sea otters have little understanding of their behavior, no recognition that their actions may be the cause of disturbance, and no awareness they are neither the first, nor last, kayak these otters will encounter that day. Through the collaborative efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Friends of the Sea Otter, and Seaotters.com, the concept of this new, outreach-based program, Sea Otter Savvy, was developed. Sea Otter Savvy received our first funding in fall of 2015 and launched shortly thereafter. I am proud and excited, having been appointed Program Coordinator, to have an opportunity to translate what I have learned as a sea otter biologist into effective strategies for creating a safe and more peaceful coexistence where the favorite places of otters and humans overlap.
In our first months we have activated a Citizen Science program with volunteers in two central coast counties (Monterey and San Luis Obispo) in the field collecting data on sea otter activity as it relates to many potential sources of disturbance. In September of 2015, Sea Otter Savvy convened and hosted an unprecedented summit of the best and brightest folks on the coast who are working to reduce disturbance to a variety of coastal wildlife. Representatives from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Audubon Society, LiMPETS, Seabird Protection Network, MPA Collaborative Group, and many others joined together at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories to identify disturbance issues, come up with solutions, and foster collaboration. Collaboration springing from this summit continues, and Sea Otter Savvy is leading teams planning Wildlife Awareness Workshops in Morro Bay and Monterey. Our first deployment of outreach materials is imminent, and we are poised to launch our Be Sea Otter Savvy kayak decal, which will provide guidelines for responsible viewing to those renting kayaks along the central coast. Look for our decals soon on the fleet of Monterey Bay Kayaks in Monterey and Moss Landing! We are excited to implement many more ideas and strategies in the coming months!
If you are lucky enough to live along the Central California coast, you have chosen a home where your neighbors are not only human, but a rich assortment of coastal and marine wildlife. Here, you share space with sea otters who, with their powerful role in maintaining the health of our near shore communities, are seashore superheroes. They are esteemed neighbors, and often the best we can do to be neighborly is give them the space they need to do the things they need to do to survive. We hope you will join Sea Otter Savvy in promoting the respectful sharing of space with our wild neighbors: know, follow, and share guidelines for safe viewing of sea otters and all kinds of wildlife, model responsible behavior when you are on the water, and foster an ethic of respect and empathy towards all in our community, human and non-human. The next time you see a peacefully resting sea otter, consider how you would like to be treated: Respect the nap!
Learn more about the Sea Otter Savvy program at http://www.seaottersavvy.org/!