Southern California environment news and trends

Three things you otter know about the state's cutest marine mammal

USGS

Olive the oiled otter is the poster child for a struggling population of the state's cutest marine mammals related to weasels. Now Olive has a child of her own.

USGS

Sea otters (like Olive, shown here in central California recently) eat 25% of their body weight each day in an effort to stay warm. While they're taking care of their pups, they need to work even harder to help the younguns learn how to eat and groom themselves.


This week, state fish and game officials have announced that an otter once famous for being covered with oil is now doing well enough to have had a baby.

Olive the oiled sea otter has her own Facebook page, which says that she "was rescued Feb. 21, 2009, from Sunset State Beach in Monterey Bay… The endangered marine mammal was likely the victim of oil from a natural seep off the Monterey coast."

Olive's pup adds to the state's population of otters, which the US Geological Survey has indexed at 2,792 this past spring. That's a 2 percent increase from 2010 — but hundreds of otters still commonly die from "harmful algal toxins, parasites and infectious diseases, mating trauma, emaciation, bacterial infections, heart disease and boat strikes." 

State officials are calling attention to Olive and the raft of otters around the state because we're coming up on the 10th annual Otter Awareness Week, starting September 23rd. It's also almost October, when tax extensions are due: that's the time of year fish and game officials work to drum up support for a special sea otter tax check-off fund.

The news is also important because the California sea otter is my favorite marine mammal (that is a member of the weasel family). 

Here to help justify the pictures of Olive and her new pup are the three most important things I know about otters. 

  1. They're rapacious. Out of necessity: they've got to consume 25 percent of their body weight to stay warm enough. (All that eating's good for ecological balance, too, and maybe even climate change. WHen was the last time anyone said you eating dinner helped with global warming?)
  2. Otter sex is weird. It's violent. The male otter bites the female otter's nose and holds her underwater. They love a chase. Last year a study came out documenting an otter having sex with a harbor seal until it died, and then some. (The Awl compared it to Christian Bale in American Psycho!)
  3. Otters used to be way more common down here in southern California, all the way to Baja. But they're dying off, and scientists are racing the clock to figure out why. That's what California's doing with your tax form check-off money. 

My high school teachers for English and Science led trips to the Monterey Bay Aquarium every year; we'd Steinbeck out on the well-written captions under the animal exhibits, writing short stories around characters based on the thresher shark or the sarcastic fringehead.

Then we'd do some science worksheets, to prove we actually learned something. 

My brother and sister's classes did too. What we three endearingly remember — in addition to all the other cool stuff, you know, stuff that's always there — is the science teacher who strolled up to a group of students standing along the outside deck railing, and said: "Look at those guys. Can't beat it. All you do is eat and have sex all day. Sign me up, I could do that."

True story. 

Otters may be cute, but it ain't as easy as my science teacher made it seem. They actually work really hard: Olive's survival is a comeback-kid story because she almost died, and she almost died because she couldn't clean her fur to stay warm. Otters groom themselves like cats if they can (they just don't get all the naps land cats get). 

This year, Sea Otter Awareness Week means otter movies screening along the coast, as far south as Santa Barbara. Locally, the Cabrillo Aquarium, the Aquarium of the Pacific usually have events; I'll find out more about that. 

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