Celebrating Sea Otters in Alaska

A sea otter floats in Valdez small boat harbor on a sunny afternoon. Otters were severely affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

A sea otter floats in Valdez small boat harbor on a sunny afternoon. Otters were severely affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

In 1989, the framework of coastal Alaska was changed forever when an oil tanker crashed into Bligh Reef just miles from the small town of Valdez, Alaska. Pristine shoreline became a gooky, oily mess after the innards of the Exxon Valdez poured out to lie atop the saltwater of Prince William Sound. Life was never to be the same; not for the people who lived near and worked on the ocean; and certainly not for the millions of birds, sea otters, and other marine life that suffered and died as a result of the spill.

Before moving to Alaska, my knowledge of and support for oiled sea creatures was limited to the segments on television mentioning a far-off destination that didn’t relate to me. Once I stood upon the gravelly beaches near Valdez, watching a family of sea otters crunching on clams and a pod of whales come blowing along the channel, my perspective changed. It all mattered.

It’s National Sea Otter Awareness Week, and in cooperation with Dawn, the makers of the dish soap formula that helped save hundreds of soiled and oiled birds and mammals during that 1989 spill, I am again thrilled to share a very special opportunity to get to know these amazing critters.

A sea otter pup, known as "Little Boy" was rescued in Kachemak Bay at about a week of age last winter, and was brought to the Alaska SeaLife Center for raising and otter life skills. Image courtesy Daniela Ruiz, for USFS LOA-837414

A sea otter pup, known as “Little Boy” was rescued in Kachemak Bay at about a week of age last winter, and was brought to the Alaska SeaLife Center for raising and otter life skills. Image courtesy Daniela Ruiz, for USFS LOA-837414

First, though, a few sea otter facts: 

– Sea otters are the heaviest member of the weasel family. They can weigh up to 100 pounds, which is still pretty light compared to seals and sea lions, though.

– The range of sea otters stretches from one end to the other of the shallower coastal waters of the north pacific ocean, and most are, incidentially, found in Alaska.

– Sea otters rely upon fur, not fat, to keep them warm in these chilly waters, so they have a dense, soft, and heavy fur; up to 250,000-1 million hairs per square inch! Otters must, then, keep that fur clean and free of debris, so they groom a lot. A whole lot.

– Otters eat lots of good things; urchins, abalone, mussels, clams, crab. They must eat 25% of their body weight in food each day just to support their incredibly high metabolism.

The mortality rate of sea otters after the Exxon Valdez oil spill was devastating; numbers range from 1,000-5,000, depending upon the study. But nobody disputes the physical damage petroleum hydrocarbons had on the otters’ bodies, including eye, nose, and mouth irritations, skin damage, and hypothermia as the animals’ body temperature fell due to a lack of insulation.

Sea otters were hauled out onto the shorelines near Valdez and Prince William Sound, and volunteers began sending the survivors to town for a good washing, over and over, so the animals could groom themselves and hopefully restore normal function. Some did, and some didn’t, but there’s no denying that the effort was there.

'Calloway' the otter munches on a clam at the Marine Mammal Center in California. Image courtesy the Marine Mammal Center.

‘Calloway’ the otter munches on a crab leg at the Marine Mammal Center in California. Image courtesy the Marine Mammal Center.

Cute and cuddly – sort of

Sea otters are adorable, but also tenacious members of the food chain that act as a cornerstone to shellfish management within the kelp forests they love to roam.

See these teeth? These choppers are meant for chopping and tearing into shells and seafood delectables right from the source, and eating on the fly. Otters are also one of the only animals besides primates known to use tools; typically a rock kept tucked under an arm until needed for pounding into a mussel or clam or crab shell. Ingenious, aren’t they?

The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward is offering a chance to view sea otters close up, with an in-depth explanation of the work it takes to keep animals in the center healthy during their rehabilitation. From now through October 31, Sea Otter Experiences are held at 4 p.m. and last about 30 minutes, perfect for kids in elementary school or older, and definitely for teens and grownups. This is, by the way, the only way visitors can see the otters up close, says the SeaLife Center Communications team. And it’s worth the extra $24.95/pp adult; $19.95/pp child 6-12 to have the chance to visit with the animal care experts who spends his or her day helping ensure the otters are healthy and safe as they adjust to their temporary surroundings. Kids must be at least 6 years of age. Reservations are highly recommended by calling 888-378-2525 or emailing visitaslc@alaskasealife.org.

Can’t make it to an otter encounter? Take time to visit this world-class facility in Seward, the only marine mammal and bird rehabilitation facility in Alaska. Winter hours are 12-5 p.m. daily October 3-February 26. It’s worth the two-hour drive from Anchorage. While in Seward, walk the beach, have dinner at Apollo Restaurant, and maybe stay overnight at Harbor 360 Hotel.

And, you know. the CUTENESS. It’s all I can do not to hop in the car right now.

~EK

dawn-ambassadors-logo_8-26-2

Posted in Alaska Wildlife Experiences, Sponsored posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .