Four Facts About Sea Otters That Might Surprise You
Think you know all about the cutest mammals of the sea?
Find out if you are a sea otter specialist by checking your info against these fascinating sea otter facts.
1. Their fur is super dense.
Sea otters, unlike other marine mammals, do not have a subcutaneous layer of fat, or blubber.
Sea otters have the densest fur of any mammal on earth, with 850,000 to one million hairs per square inch. This incredibly thick fur helps them maintain heat and, therefore, energy so they can dive and hunt for food.
Imagine a seal or whale. These are examples of marine mammals who have an extra layer of fat cells all around their body to help insulate them and maintain body temperature in the ocean water.
It’s the same reason humans wear wetsuits to stay warm while diving. Sea otters, like humans, have no such layer, so their fur must perform the crucial role of insulation.
2. They were nearly wiped out by hunters.
Sea otters once numbered in the hundreds of thousands and could be found from northern Asia, across the arctic circle, and down the California coast.
Due to strong demand for their fur, otters were hunted to near extinction during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their numbers were reduced to between 1,000–2,000 individuals worldwide.
Two things saved sea otters from extinction. In 1911, the International Fur Seal Treaty banned the sale of sea otter fur, ending the demand for sea otter coats and hats.
Then during the 1970s the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts further assisted a conservation effort that has allowed sea otters to recover relatively stable population numbers in both North America and Asia.
3. They are counted each year.
When most people think of otters they imagine the iconic Southern Sea Otter. One specific population of Southern Sea Otters off the coast of California is counted each year.
In 2019, biologists counted 2,962 California Sea Otters off the coast of the state, from Pigeon Point in the north to Gaviota State Beach in the south. This already small number has been decreasing from a high of 3,272 in 2016.
Scientists speculate that great white shark attacks may be a contributing factor to the sharp decrease in sea otter numbers since they have been appearing with increasing frequency inside the otters’ range.
Sharks, mistaking the otters for a tasty seal, approach with an investigative bite, and generally release the otter since they do not provide enough fat for the shark (remember, no blubber). Unfortunately, the bite is often fatal for the otter.
4. They do come ashore (and they look ridiculous).
It might seem like sea otters spend all their time at sea. But they do come ashore, or haul-out, on occasion to soak up some sun or rest away from marine predators in a sheltered cove or beach.
At Moss Landing State Beach in California, a resident pod of sea otters often rests on a beach that appears in the harbor during low tide. While otters may look cute and cuddly, they are not! They are actually part of the weasel family, and they are aggressive carnivores that have been known to injure pets in self-defense.
Plus, sea otters fall under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which states that people may not harass, feed, hunt, capture or kill a marine mammal. If you are lucky enough to see an otter in the wild, keep at least 100 feet away to avoid disturbing them and for your own safety.
Watch Sea Otters Live!
Sea otters are endlessly fascinating to learn about, and equally fascinating to watch! Have you ever seen one swim and play? Check out these live cams that give you a front-row seat to the sea otter circus!
Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Otter Cam: This is the famous Aquarium's live cam, and you are almost guaranteed to see otters here! Their website is also a great resource for information about sea otters as well as the other diverse marine life that calls Monterey Bay home.
Elkhorn Slough Sea Otter Cam: There are two live cams linked here, and they give a real-time view of the Elkhorn Slough, a brackish place between land and sea where otters can shelter from the open ocean and hunt for food like crabs and clams. You might not always see otters here, but when you do they are in their wild habitat!
You can find out more about protecting California sea otters and supporting conservation and research at The Marine Mammal Center.