Today was a great day. The weather was pretty nice, even with the multi-layered partial cloud cover which actually had a particularly tropical feel to it. The wind remained light, even though shifty; first northwesterly, then westerly, and finally turning out of the south for a bit. There were people on all kinds of watercraft enjoying the afternoon. We had quite a few renters out, some who were experiencing stand up paddling for the very first time. The breeze was just enough to make stand up paddling more of a workout for one set of newbies, so I thought it best to get on my own board and escort them across the channel to the protection of the shallow shelf of the sand spit. As I returned toward Coleman beach, I came across a couple in a kayak who were chasing a mother otter and her pup in the channel. Mother otter was doing her very best to propel herself with her tail while holding her fuzzy little pup close to her chest. But the kayak was moving against the current faster than the otter could. I watched the kayakers continue to chase. I was growing pretty concerned for the otters, so I moved a little closer to the kayak. As I did, I was shocked to see that it was a mother with her own child, about 8 years old! I paddled closer and shouted over to the couple, “Hey- please stop chasing the otters!” My plea was ignored, and they continued pursuing. I shouted again to the adult to move away from the otter and told her she was breaking the law. Only then did she back off.
Although a new otter pup is irresistibly adorable, we must all do our very best to respect otters, adults and young alike, and stay a safe distance from them. During that encounter, mother and pup otters were impacted in a way that we will never know, and the mother in the kayak was a poor model for her child. Adults need to teach their children to respect wild animals. I realize that she simply wanted to get her child close enough so she could get a good look at the baby, but she was ignorant of the cost that action would have on the otters. So, what is the reason we shouldn’t get close, and certainly not chase otters? There are quite a few very good reasons, both behavioral and physiological to leave otters be.
First, Morro Bay has been blessed with a rich and diverse assortment of wildlife. The otter population has quickly grown in number over the past decade. As of May, 2017, the count was 36 adults and 9 pups. According to local sea otter biologist, Mike Harris, this is the highest count to date of sea otters, and is far more than the four or five otters that would visit the harbor during the previous decade. Just as the sea otter population grew, so did the population of humans recreating in the harbor. A sharp growth in water sports, specifically kayaking and stand up paddling, has taken place during the past decade. This parallel explosion of wildlife and humans on the water has happened at a pace that has exceeded our ability to plan for and prevent impacts on the otters.
Behavior changes are one impact we may have on the otters. The more contact otters have with humans on a daily basis, the more their natural behaviors are altered. In short, they are becoming very accustomed to our presence in kayaks, on paddleboards, and on boats. This means that they don’t move away when a boat or kayak approaches. This puts them in danger. I have witnessed countless times over the past year otters that are narrowly missed by motorboats because the otters just didn’t move out of the way. They are no longer moving away as quickly as they used to when approached by kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. Over the past two years, I have come across two otters that appeared to have been struck by boats.
In addition to behavior changes with increased human contact, otters suffer physiologically from human contact. Otters are mammals that spend all of their time in cold water. Like other mammals, they must maintain a minimum body temperature to survive. But unlike seals and sea lions which have thick blubber to provide insulation and keep them warm, otters depend on their thick pelt for survival. An otter’s coat is extremely dense, containing about 1 million hairs per square inch. The effectiveness of an otter’s coat in insulating the animal depends on constant cleaning and maintenance. An otter is constantly caring for its coat. This takes a lot of energy. To replace calories burned by self care and moving about in the water, including fleeing danger, an otter needs to eat often. It also needs to rest often, especially after feeding and while nursing pups. When disturbed often by humans, they must move which burns calories, and those calories must be replaced. This puts them at risk for falling behind nutritionally which can lead to weight loss and starvation, especially if food sources are scarce at the time.
What can we do to help our otters stay healthy? We can avoid paddling in areas where otters are known to rest, or “raft” as it is called. If you can see them from a distance, you should change course and paddle away even before they see you. If you see others chasing or lingering near a raft of otters, please say something in a gentle way to help educate them. If you see a sick or injured otter, please call Morro Bay Harbor Patrol at 772-6254 and report what you see and give a location. They will contact our local biologist or other marine mammal specialists.
Well, that’s all for now. Enjoy our amazing wildlife, and happy paddling!