Tuesday, February 7, 2012

See Me Want Me Feel Me But Don't Touch Me

Besides the seals there is another animal that occasionally shares the ocean with me when I go for my morning swim and that's the otter.  There are two types of otters native to B.C waters, the river otter and the sea otter and, though they are both part of the weasel family, they are two distinct species.  And it isn't the sea otter I ever encounter but rather the river otter.
River Otter

While they look similar from a distance it's easy to recognize the difference between them. The river otter is very sleek, weighs between 10-30 pounds and has a long tail.  The sea otter on the other hand is a lot chubbier, weighing between 30-100 pounds, and has a short tail.  A river otter is at home on either land or in the water and can be seen scampering along the shoreline.  Sea otters on the other hand are always in the water and usually lying together in rafts.

Sea Otter
Sea otters once ranged in the hundreds of thousands along the northern Pacific ocean from Mexico to Alaska and along the coastline of Russia and Japan, but they were hunted to practically extinction by 1911 for their luxurious fur, the thickest of any mammal.  Only after an international hunting ban, combined with extensive conservation efforts, have the creatures started to make a comeback but in B.C. they can only be found on the west coast of Vancouver Island and on the mainland around Bella Bella.

Sea otter raft
River otters are occasionally hunted for their fur as well, but their greater range of habitat on land and water and the fact they live in dens makes it easier for them to survive.  Also their fur isn't as prized.  Perhaps this better position they find themselves in, compared to their cousins, accounts for their well known playful behaviour.  Whenever I see one they are usually in a family group that appears to be on some sort of happy expedition, noisily chirping and chuckling to one another as they swim and scurry about. 

River otter family
While the sea otter is famous for being the only animal other than primates to use a tool (breaking molluscs with a rock), the river otter is equally monkey like in its ability to climb up practically anything, particularly docks.  Boaters are especially aware of otters around marinas and need to always ensure they keep their doors closed when they aren't on board because there is nothing a curious river otter likes more than the opportunity to rummage around inside a cozy boat.  And the mess they make in the process is not something you want to clean up after.

Nyac the Sea otter

On the other hand as humans we have made some fairly nasty messes ourselves, not the least being oil spills which are particularly devastating to both species.  Nyac was one of the lucky ones rescued from the Exxon Valdez oil spill and lived in the Vancouver Aquarium for nearly 20 years afterwards.   She became a goodwill ambassador and poster child for the sea otters who we now realize form a very important link as a keystone species in the ecosystem.  Sea otters are vital to keeping the sea urchin population under control in the kelp forests.

No name River otter
So whether you find yourself swimming in a kelp forest or wandering along the seashore one day, and happen to spot an otter, take a moment to see how much they enjoy the simple things in life.  However, as much as you might like to reach out and pet one of these cuddly and adorable looking creatures you can be sure it won't happen.  They never let anyone get too close, and for good reason it would appear, after all we have done to them.  Whether it's a sea otter or a river otter it's all look but don't touch and that's okay.


  1. Have just read, with interest, your great story on the otters. Once again, it was very informative from the difference to sea and river otters, to the huge difference in weight and lastly, but not least, to their nasty habits when around boats. You are right - button down the hatches when you leave your boat, you don't want an otter visiting unexpectedly.

  2. Thank you for the subtle admonishments to humans regarding the environment they destroy for the creatures who live in it. Yes, the creatures will wreak havoc if they gain entry to a boat but the difference is that they don't know better, whereas we do.
    P.S. For me, the animals in your stories at least triple my interest when I read them!