Category Archives: Sea Otter

Sea Otter biology and behavior near Kodiak Island

Summer Friends at Amook Pass

Summer Friends at Amook Pass is a post by my friend, Marcia Messier. I love this humorous story about her animal encounters while she worked for us at Munsey’s Bear Camp. What Marcia doesn’t tell you in this piece is that I named our goat visitor Marcie because the goat’s daring trip each summer from the mountains to the ocean, reminded me of Marcia’s adventurous spirit. Prepare to smile as you read about Marcia’s adventures!

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Summer Friends at Amook Pass

During the summer months at Amook Pass, the animals were my friends. That sounds a bit corny, but they were amusing, startling, and comforting, all that friends should be. I looked forward and anticipated who might stop by for a visit during my busy days.

House Animals

I was privileged to know Gizzy, Fletcher, Elsie, and Olive during my summers at Munsey’s Bear Camp. They were my very best animal friends. I thought it was interesting that Gizzy and Olive had similar personalities as did Fletcher and Elsie; even though, they had never met. Gizzy and Olive were the sweet ladies, soft-spoken, polite, accommodating for a photo, well groomed, and perhaps just a little bit shy of visitors. Fletcher and Elsie, on the other hand, were true wilderness cats. Fletcher was getting along in years when I first met him, but he told me many a hair-raising tale about his hunting skills as a younger gentleman. Elsie was in her prime, and she loved to stalk bears for days on end. Many a time as Robin and I were mourning her early demise, we would hear Mike yell, “Elsie’s back!”, and there she would be, dragging herself through the door, ragged, dirty and ravenously hungry after her latest adventure.

Fletcher and Elsie loved to hunt voles, the tiny mouse-like creatures close to the bottom of the Kodiak food chain. They must be a very tasty snack because twice daily I’d find their tiny blue and green left-over parts deposited on the front door step. I used to tell myself they were loving gifts, but then again, whoever left the pieces always seemed slightly amused when I reached down to pluck the bits off the doorstep while making slight gagging sounds.

Freddie the Weasel became a daily late-afternoon house guest. Maybe the sound of the old generator starting up interrupted his afternoon nap. He’d shoot in the backdoor, zip through the kitchen and take cover under the couch in the living room to watch and learn about life in the big house. At first, I jumped and shrieked thinking he must be some kind of Kodiak rat, but later in the day, Robin calmly explained about weasels.

Gizzy and Fletcher were still with us then but getting along in years. They knew their limitations, so they decided to pretend Freddie was just a figment of my over-active imagination. Not wanting to insult them, I went along with the game and soon we all looked forward to Freddie’s daily antics. I knew when he heard the boat motoring up to the mooring; I would see the tail end of Freddie flip out the front door.

Yard Animals

Early in the summer season, the female Sitka deer would bring their fawns into the yard to nibble the bright green salad-like greens growing around the cabins. Sometimes there would be twins, and I would think happy thoughts as I watched them through the kitchen window while preparing breakfast.

One day I came nose to nose with a deer! I was hurrying to the cabin with a load of fresh laundry, and we met coming around the corner at the same instant. We were both startled and just stared dumbfounded into each other’s eyes for a moment. I’m not sure who moved first, but a hunter later told me I was lucky it hadn’t given me a good kick in the shins before it bolted off! I guess that happens, but ours was a peaceful meeting, and I will forever remember that instant.

I live in Arizona, so the first time I saw a fox on the pathway, I excitedly reported to Mike I had seen a coyote in the yard that day. Laughing, he looked at me like I was nuts and said, “There are no coyotes on Kodiak Island!”. I felt a little foolish but still maintain at a distance, a big healthy Kodiak fox looks very much like a thin Arizona coyote in the summertime!

I’ve seen Bald Eagles before, but in Arizona, they are a special sighting. On Kodiak, they are commonplace, and I was thrilled to see a nesting pair close to camp. On my mid-day break, if the weather was good, I’d sit in a lawn chair facing the bay and watch the eagles fish. It was entertaining; an eagle would fly over the water and scope out a fish, and then in an amazing feet-first dive, catch the fish in its talons. After this, it was usually impossible to get airborne once again, so it had to row itself and the fish, still clutched in its talons, ashore with its wings. There, after expending so much energy, it would devour the fish and do it all over again.

More than once, on a nice day, while taking a siesta in the hammock, enjoying the warm sun on my face, I’d hear and feel the strong wing beats of a very large bird flying close over me, and I’d know I had been checked out by a Bald Eagle!

Some of you may have read my “Encounter” with a bear. I was walking along the path up to the guest cottage one afternoon, my mind far away, when I heard a “horse” snort. The sound brought me back to the present in a flash, and I must say, I have never confused the sound of a bear with that of a horse again!

A secret I’d like to reveal is Mike used to make a bear playground out of old red mooring buoys a distance up behind the generator shed. I heard him and Robin laughing once about how much fun the bears had rolling, tossing and chewing these old red buoys. I never did venture up past the generator shed and burn barrel. Wearing a red jacket, I didn’t want the bears to make a mistake. I did wonder if mother bears warned their cubs, “never go near that playground as there is a dangerous human there who makes frightening loud, smoky blasts come out of the shed and soon after makes fire leap high into the sky out of a barrel!” Thinking back, I was probably quite safe.

Marcie was my favorite yard animal. One warm July day, we spotted a solitary mountain goat strolling along the beach near camp. Mike and Robin reported this was indeed a rare sighting. We couldn’t help ourselves, Robin christened her Marcie, and we began to speculate about her life and why she was here on our beach. She was a rebel. Marcie was tired of billies, she had too many youngsters to raise, and the constant stress of all those steep icy mountain ledges was wearing her down. Maybe she had arthritis in her knees. Maybe she just wanted a vacation at the beach! We happily welcomed her, and for a number of years, she would appear for her annual July vacation at Munsey’s Bear Camp. One year she didn’t arrive. We looked and looked, but no Marcie.   Right away we decided, instead of feeling sad, we would celebrate her life. We had a toast to Marcie, how brave she was to break away from the herd and dare to be different!

Sea Animals

The sea otter is a zen-like sight floating on its back, paws pressed together as if in meditation pose. It’s a sweet maternal picture with mom floating on her back and a tiny baby resting on her belly. And how clever of them to use tools! They often are observed with a rock balanced on their belly, happily cracking open clams for lunch. Brilliant!

At Munsey’s Bear Camp, I often saw sea otters floating in the cove in front of the lodge, and the sea otters kept to themselves. Their cousins the river otters, however, were a different matter. A family of river otters took up residence under the dock. This dock was now their home, and no one else was welcome. The dock became their dining room and their toilet. A mop had to be stationed on the dock so that the horrid stinky mess could be swabbed away. The mop could also be used as a defensive tool.

River Otter

With guests arriving and departing from the dock every five days, caution had to be observed. One day stands out in my mind. It was a beautiful, sunny Kodiak day, and we were all on deck welcoming new guests. As they were embarking from the float plane and luggage was being handed down, I took a step back and slid on an unseen mound of otter poo. I wanted to vaporize as I fell on my backside in an ungraceful plop! Afterward, we laughed about this incident, but I never forgot, and every time I saw a sweet little otter posing for pictures, I saw two little horns poking up through the top of its head.

I grew up near Cape Cod where everyone loved to fish. I didn’t. To me, the whole process from baiting the hook, to dragging the poor thing out of its natural habitat with a hook in its mouth, to butchering it, to stinking up the house with fried fish was cruel and disgusting. Fast forward 40 years and I’m a cook in a fishing camp. I politely listened and smiled at all the fish stories and quietly cooked the fish, wondering what all the commotion was about. One day my perception changed. Robin and Mike asked me if I’d like to go out on the boat with them for the day. We had only one guest, and it was a great day to get out of the house. Yes, I wanted to go! Like a good sport, I purchased my fishing license, and away we went. Mike anchored in a pretty cove, and as I sat down in the deck chair ready to enjoy the sunshine, Robin stuck a baited pole in my hands and showed me where to drop the line. Still not paying much attention, suddenly the pole was nearly yanked out of my hands, and the line was whizzing off the reel. “What’s going on?”, I hollered. Robin and Mike replied, “You’ve caught a fish.” They proceeded to give me instructions. Suddenly, the scenario was hilarious, like an old re-run of “I Love Lucy.” I couldn’t stop laughing which in turn made my arms weak and unable to reel in the line. In a second, Robin strapped a belt-like thing around me to support the fishing pole so that I could reel. Now we are all laughing hard, but with perseverance and aching arms, the fish finally emerged from the deep. I was leaned over the rail gasping in amazement at “my halibut” when all of sudden, Mike, with an expert jerk of his pliers, freed my fish from the hook and off it swam! Hey! At that moment I was totally conflicted. On the one hand, I proudly wanted to bring my halibut home for supper, but on the other, I wished it well and was happy it was able to live another day in Uyak Bay.

 

 

 

 

 

Sea Otters Part 2

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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

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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.

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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.

Be sure to sign up for my Mystery Newsletter on my home page.  The second letter will be mailed soon.

 

Mid-Summer 2015

Mid-Summer 2015 is the post I wrote for our Munsey’s Bear Camp website.

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I love watching our guests relax as they transition from their stress-filled lives into our peaceful, wild world.  When they first step off the floatplane, they are often quiet and perhaps even a little wary.  They’ve just flown forty-five minutes into the heart of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, and there are no roads or stores here.  There’s just a small lodge and a few boats.

We feed them lunch, Mike explains what they will be doing for the next few days, and we tell them to meet us at the dock in twenty minutes for their first-afternoon cruise on our 43-ft. boat.  They laugh at the sea otters and harbor seals and snap photos of bald eaglesDSC_1164 and other wildlife, but most remain quiet, and separate groups keep to themselves.

On the first full day, we go either bear viewing or fishing, and by that evening, I begin to see the first signs of relaxation, as our guests step out of their lives for a few days and into a world that revolves around tides and wild animals.  They ask us questions about the wildlife they’ve seen, tell us about their families, and describe other travel adventures they have had.  They linger for a few minutes after dinner, discussing the day’s events with their fellow adventures.

By the fourth day, the mood on the boat is often raucous.  These strangers, who on day one traded only polite comments, are now teasing each other and sharing photos and e-mail addresses. They sigh the last morning when they step off our boat for the final time.  They complain that the week flew by too quickly and vow to return again soon.

DSC_3890We’ve had beautiful weather so far this summer, and we’ve enjoyed great whale watching.  At times, we’ve been surrounded by fin whales, and one of the highlights of the summer was when a humpback breached several times right in front of us!  Halibut fishing has been very good, and we’ve had some of the best salmon fishing we can remember.  Pink salmon swarmed into Brown’s Lagoon in July, and we had non-stop action.  Meanwhile, large schools of silver salmon filled the bay.  The run was a month early, and it is likely that the early salmon were headed elsewhere and just stopped in Uyak Bay to feast on the large schools of herring and other small fish that have been so abundant this summer.  The rich food base of krill and small schooling fish is also undoubtedly why we’ve had so many whales in the bay.

Due to our warm weather, we’ve had another bumper crop of berries this summer, and theDSC_3823 bears are torn between catching salmon and feeding on berries.  Bears are much more plentiful than they were the first half of last summer, but we are sometimes frustrated as we wait for them to lose interest in berries and concentrate on salmon.  The rich and plentiful food source of berries and salmon the last few summers has provided great nutrition for the bears, and we’ve seen numerous groups of sows and cubs this summer.

On the home front, Mary Schwarzhans is again wowing our guests with her creative and delicious meals, and we are thrilled that Mary’s sister, Emma, is also working for us this summer.  The two of them make our lives much easier and more pleasant, and our guests tell us that even if we didn’t have spectacular wildlife and fishing here, they would return to Munsey’s Bear Camp just for the food.  I suspect that stepping out of their lives and truly relaxing for a few days might be another reason to return.