Monthly Archives: February 2016

Guest Post by Marcia Messier

While Robin and Mike are on vacation trekking through New Zealand, I agreed to do a guest post for her, and I decided to write about two of the friends I made while working as a cook at Munsey’s Bear Camp.

The Gentleman

By Marcia Messier


I fell in love with Fletcher the moment he sauntered out of the house to greet me. Anyone who has known a Maine Coon Cat will agree they are magnificent animals. All that fur! It springs out of their ears and sticks up through their toes; it flows over their shoulders and back, culminating in a luxurious feather duster tail.

Fletcher was a mature gentleman. He never raised his voice or lost his temper but you were never in doubt he was the master of his house. To qualify as camp cook in his house I learned there was an initiation ritual, a series of tricky situations (don’t ask, don’t tell) that must be passed through. Eventually, I navigated this unknown territory without screaming out loud or making too much fuss and was accepted into my position.

My first summer in camp was a little difficult at times. I had so much to learn! By the end of the busy day I collapsed on my bed exhausted and maybe a little homesick. Fletcher could see I needed help so every evening he came upstairs to talk. Sometimes he would discuss the art of catching birds (a specific bird he alone may have put on the endangered list), or perhaps how to disembowel a vole, making absolute certain to leave the tiny green parts on the doorstep as a special offering to the” house spirits”.   Fletcher carefully explained how I should ignore the silly otters that lived under the dock in summer, and especially to be very careful of the smelly slippery mess they made on it (I slipped anyway). Most importantly, he lectured me on how far I could expect to walk on the beach without meeting a bear casually strolling past camp. After our comforting chat he would sing a purr-fect little song and I’d peacefully doze off.

Summer passed quickly. Soon Fletcher and I were sharing one last hug and one last bird story by the kitchen window. It was time to go.

The Game.   

By Marcia Messier


Gizzy was a beauty, a beauty with an attitude. Her long thick golden blond, carefully coiffed fur glistened and her large golden eyes blinked as she regarded everyone with an expression of absolute boredom.

Guests were sometimes spellbound by her beauty. Bear, fox and bald eagles were forgotten as they rolled around the lawn with cameras focused, trying to capture the perfect angle of the Kodiak sun shining through Gizzy’s luxurious golden fur, creating an aura of light about her body.

As a matter of fact, her fur was the exact color of the seaweed that washed upon our shore in the summer.

One day, Gizzy bored as she was, decided to have a game of “Hide & Seek” with the new cook. It was mid-afternoon before I realized she hadn’t been on her perch all day. Nervously, I began to search, upstairs, downstairs, and in the cabins… no sign of her. Finally, looking over the edge of the bluff down onto the beach I saw the golden seaweed surging back and forth with the high tide. Had she fallen into the water? Did I see something that resembled her body in that thick seaweed?   No, no, impossible! Still, how was I going to explain to Robin and Mike I had lost the cat? Nonetheless, presently I had to move on; it was time to suspend the search and prepare dinner. Later on, nearly in tears thinking Gizzy was gone, while tidying-up before guests arrived, far back in a corner near the wood stove and curled up behind a pair of boots was Gizzy! Flipping her tail and grinning slyly up at me, I had to concede, Gizzy had indeed won her game!



Sea Otters Part 3

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A sea otter has a loose pouch of skin under each foreleg where it can store food as it’s collected.  When the otter returns to the surface, it can rest on its back and leisurely retrieve one piece of food after another from its pouch. In addition to food, the sea otter also stores a rock in one of its pouches.  The otter may use the rock under water to pry loose mussels or other attached bivalves or to dislodge sea urchins wedged in crevices.  When floating on the surface, the otter places the rock on its chest and pounds crabs, snails, clams, and other prey against the rock to break through the tough shells.  Sea otters are one of the few animals other than humans known to use tools.


Mating can occur at any time of the year for sea otters, and while the young may be born in any season, most pups in Alaska are born in the spring.  As with bears, when a sea otter becomes pregnant, the implantation and development of the embryo often stops, and the embryo may not implant for several months.  Scientists believe the purpose of delayed implantation in sea otters is to allow for the birth of pups when environmental conditions and food supplies are most favorable. Sea otters are pregnant for four months, but because the length of the delayed implantation varies so greatly, the gestation period may last from four to twelve months.

Sea otter mothers are normally very attentive, affectionate, and protective of their pups.  A pup spends most of its time riding on its mother’s belly, and even pups six-months of age or older and nearly as large as their mother will climb on her stomach as she appears to struggle to keep her head above water.


In addition to cradling her pup on her chest to keep him warm, a mother meticulously grooms her pup’s fur until the pup is three to four months old and able to groom himself.  At this age, the pup is also able to swim on his back and dive with ease.   The mother teaches the pup how to catch and eat prey, and by the time the pup is six months old, he can capture and break open his own prey.  Sea otter pups remain with their mothers anywhere from three to twelve months.

Sea otters often float together in large groups called rafts.  Except for territorial males who rest with female groups, most rafts are comprised of individuals of the same sex, and mothers with pups often rest together in nursery groups. Rafts usually consist of between ten and more than one-hundred otters, but in Alaska, rafts with 2000 individuals have been reported.


Sea otters are considered a “Keystone” species, meaning that they effect the ecosystem to a much greater degree than their numbers would suggest. Sea otters protect kelp forests by eating herbivores such as sea urchins that graze on the kelp.  In turn, the kelp forests provide food and cover for many other species of animals, and kelp forests play an important role in capturing carbon and reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.



Sea Otters Part 2


Sea otters are well adapted to their marine environment.  Their nostrils and ears can close when diving, and they are able to change the refractive power of their lenses so they can see clearly in water as well as in air. The skeleton of a sea otter is loosely articulated and has no clavicle, allowing the animal a great deal of flexibility when swimming and grooming. A sea otter’s hind feet are flattened and webbed much like flippers, and the fifth digit on each foot is elongated, allowing the otter to swim more efficiently on its back. The front paws are short and have extendable claws and tough pads on the palms, enabling the otter to grip slippery prey, and the teeth are adapted for crushing hard-shelled invertebrates.  Sea otters have large, lobulated kidneys that allow them to conserve water and maintain water balance while living in a saltwater environment, Their kidneys efficiently absorb water and eliminate excess salt in urea, a waste product more concentrated than sea water. Sea otters are very buoyant due to their large lungs, which are two-and-one-half times bigger than those of a similar-sized land mammal.

Sea otters are not particularly streamlined, and because of this, they are the slowest swimming of all marine mammals. Top speed for a sea otter is 5.6 mph (9 km/hr), but speeds of 2 to 3 mph (3.2 to 4.8 km/hr) are more common. Sea otters usually swim on their backs while paddling with their hind flippers, but when an otter needs to travel quickly, it swims on its stomach and undulates its entire body. Sea otters are graceful in the ocean, but they aren’t built to travel on land.  It is rare to see a sea otter on land, but some like to haul out on rocks, and on Kodiak, we occasionally see sea otters resting on blocks of ice in the winter.  When they do travel on land, they travel at a clumsy, rolling gait or run in a bounding motion.

Otters generally dive and feed in fairly shallow water, less than 60 ft.(18.3 m), and they normally only stay under water for one to two minutes, but they have been known to dive as deep as 330 ft. (100.58 m) and remain submerged for as long as four to five minutes.  They are able to stay under water this long because of their large lungs that can store an abundant supply of oxygen, and because of their flexible ribs that allow their lungs to collapse under pressure.

Sea Otter eating an octopus
Sea Otter eating an octopus

A marine mammal must maintain a body temperature near 100° F (37.8° C), and in Alaska, where the water drops as low as 35° F (1.67° C), this can be a challenge.  Other marine mammals have a thick layer of blubber to insulate themselves from the cold, but sea otters have very little fat and depend mainly on their fur to keep them warm.  Sea otters have the thickest fur of any animal, with 850,000 to one million hairs per square inch (up to 150,000 per square centimeter). It is their dense, beautiful fur that made them so valuable to fur traders in the 1700’s and 1800’s.


The fur consists of two layers.  Long guard hairs form the outer layer, and these provide a protective coat that keeps the underfur dry.  It is this extremely dense underfur that keeps the otter warm, but to insulate efficiently, the fur must be clean, so sea otters spend a large portion of each day grooming and cleaning their fur.   In addition to cleaning his fur, an otter will somersault in the water and rub his body to trap air bubbles in his fur.  These bubbles not only provide insulation but also help to keep the skin dry. Since sea otters must have clean fur to stay warm, they are particularly susceptible to the ravages of an oil spill.  If their fur becomes oiled, it loses its insulating properties. And when an otter tries to clean his oiled fur, he ingests the toxins from the oil.  An otter’s underfur ranges from brown to black, with guard hairs that may be light brown, silver, or black. Alaskan sea otters often have lighter fur on their heads, and the fur usually lightens as an otter ages.


In addition to their warm fur, sea otters maintain their body heat by burning calories at a rapid rate.  A sea otter’s metabolism is two to three times higher than that of a similar-sized land mammal.  Because its metabolic rate is so high, a sea otter must eat 23 to 33 percent of its body weight each day.  That means that a fifty-pound otter will eat 11 to 16 lbs. (5 to 7.3 kg) of food every day.  Sea otters also maintain their body heat by keeping their forepaws out of the water and their hind flippers folded over their abdomens when resting and floating.  An otter’s paws are covered by very little fur and lose heat rapidly when submerged in cold water.



Sea Otters


Sea otters evoke strong emotions in humans.  Most of us can’t help but say, “Ahhhh!” when we see a cute furry otter floating on its back or looking at us in surprise, front flippers held high in the air.  Watching a baby sea otter sitting on its mother’s stomach, or hearing one break open a clam on a rock makes most of us smile.  Many fishermen, though, are not fond of sea otters and for a good reason.  Sea otters are so efficient at finding and eating shellfish that they are able to reduce populations of abalones, clams, and sea urchins to the point where a commercial fishery for these species is not viable in areas with large sea otter populations.  In this post and my next two posts, I’ll discuss sea otters and their fascinating biology and behavior.

While sea otters are the second smallest marine mammal, they are the largest members of the mustelid family, which also includes freshwater otters, weasels, minks, skunks and badgers. Sea otters may weigh as much as 100 lbs (45.5 kg).  The average adult California female weighs 44 lbs. (20 kg), and the average male weighs 64 lbs. (29 kg).  In Alaska, the average adult female is 4 ft. (1.2 meters) long and weighs 60 lbs. (27.3 kg), while the average adult male is 5 ft. (1.5 meters) long and weighs 70 lbs. (31.8 kg).

River Otter

Sea otters are the only mustelid in the genus Enhydra, and they are significantly different from all other mustelids. Sea otters are one of nine to thirteen (taxonomists disagree on the exact number) species of otters found around the world. Except for sea otters and the endangered species of marine otters, all other otters live primarily in freshwater, although river otters (Lutra canadensis) travel freely between rivers and the ocean, and on Kodiak, it is common to see river otters swimming near shore in the ocean.  River otters and sea otters resemble each other, but sea otters are larger and weigh two to three times more than river otters.  Sea otters have adapted to a life in the ocean with hind feet that are webbed to the tips of their toes and resemble flippers.  River otters also have webbed feet, but they are small, making it easier for river otters to move on land, while sea otters are very clumsy out of water. A sea otter’s tail is flat and looks like a paddle, while a river otter has a long, round tail that tapers to a point. The claws in the forepaws of a sea otter can be extended, but those of a river otter cannot. River otters swim on their stomachs, and although sea otters can also swim on their stomachs, they usually swim on their backs while paddling with their hind flippers.  River otters give birth to litters of up to four pups, but sea otters, like other marine mammals, usually only give birth to a single pup.


There are three subspecies of sea otters.  Enhydra lutris lutris ranges from the Kuril Islands to the Commander Islands in the western Pacific Ocean.  The sea otters in this subspecies are the largest and have a wide skull and short nasal bones. The Southern sea otters, or the California sea otters as they are commonly called (Enhydra lutris nereis), are found off the coast of central California.  Sea otters in this group are smaller and have a narrower skull with a long rostrum and small teeth.  The vast majority of sea otters belong to the subspecies Enhydra lutris kenyoni, the Northern sea otters.  This subspecies ranges from the Aleutian Islands to British Columbia, Washington, and northern Oregon.

Before the 1700’s, an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 sea otters inhabited the area from northern Japan to the Alaska Peninsula and along the Pacific coast of North America to southern California. Between 1741 and 1911 when sea otters were aggressively harvested for their luxurious furs, the population dropped to only 1000 to 2000 animals, and they had been eliminated from much of their original range. Many biologists believed the population was headed toward extinction. In 1911, the International Fur Seal Treaty was signed by the U.S., Russia, Great Britain, and Japan, stopping the commercial hunting of sea otters, and slowly, their numbers began to increase.  Sea otters began re-colonizing much of their former range and were reintroduced to other areas.  Sea otters now occupy about two-thirds of their historical range.

 Counts between 2004 and 2007 estimate the worldwide sea otter population at approximately 107,000 animals. Sea otter populations are considered stable in most areas, although California populations have plateaued or slightly decreased, and there has been a drastic decline in sea otter numbers in southwest Alaska, from Kodiak Island through the western Aleutian Islands.  This area once contained more than half of the world’s sea otters, but the population has declined by at least 55 to 67 percent since the mid 1980’s, and in 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed this distinct population segment as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In 1973, the otter population in Alaska was estimated at between 100,000 and 125,000 animals, but by 2006, the population had fallen to approximately 73,000 animals, mainly due to declines in the Southwest Alaska District Population Segment. The cause of this decline is unclear, but evidence suggests that it may be due to increased predation by killer whales.

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