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Where to watch sea otters, at work and play.

Fatally beautiful, the rich brown fur that insulates California sea otters against the cold Pacific nearly led to the extinction of the species. Worldwide between 1741 and 1911, almost a million of these highly intelligent marine mammals fell victim to fur traders' guns, spears, and clubs.

Since then, thanks to several protections, their population has gradually increased. But even now, only about 1,700 (including 200 pups) remain off California-- and their management is controversial.

Several easily accessible spots along the Central Coast offer otter views. You can watch them cavort in tbe rolling surf, see them up close at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or join a class for a more indepth look: we give details on all three options. Any such experience will be enriched by an understanding of the history of the otter and the conditions that still threaten its future (see page 72).

How to watch otters

You can spot otters year-round just off California, but winter is pupping season: a mother otter lavishes attention on her pup, hunting for its food, grooming and cuddling the baby dozing on her chest.

Patience is not just a virtue when looking for otters, it's a necessity. The animals are small, few in number, and widely scattered 'Just when you think you're looking for a needle in a kelp bed, a group of otters (known as a raft) might float into view. Note: keep at least 10 yards away from otters; researchers have found them very sensitive to human disturbance. Make sure you have binoculars.

Go to rocky outcroppings or piers in areas with kelp beds. Look carefully, because kelp bulbs and leaves can resemble the otters' heads, Gulls hovering expectantly can give you a clue: they may be waiting for discarded scraps from an otter's meal. In rougher seas, otters congregrate in sheltered coves.

Otters rest midday and feed in early morning or late afternoon. One way to search for them is with your ears: listen for a rhythmic tapping. That's the sound of an otter trying to open a shellfish to get at the good cats inside; the animal floats on its back, puts a stone on its chest, and bangs the shell on the stone until it opens. Otters' tool use is among the most advanced of any animal (they also use stones to pry shellfish ftom underwater rocks).

Where to go to observe otters: in the wild, and not

You can spot otters from areas in the town of Monterey (Fisherman's Wharf to the Coast Guard breakwater is quite good) down to Point Lobos State Reserve. For a close (and guaranteed) look, try the Monterey Bay Aquarium's sea otter facility, which includes a bilevel indoor tank and an outdoor area. You might also spot some wild ones swimming below the aquarium's decks. Be sure to look for the patch of otter fur in the indoor display area; touch it and you'll have some idea why hunters so coveted the pelts. Otters get fed at 11, 2, and 4:30. For information, call (408) 375-3333.

If you live in Southern California and you can't get to the central coast, visit Sea World in San Diego. The park has two otters and an interpretive display.

The Friends of the Sea Otter center is at The Crossroads shopping center on Rio Road at State Highway 1, in Carmel; it's open 10 to 3 daily, noon to 3 Sundays. Here, you can buy otter-centric gifts, as well as learn more about the current state of otter protection. Call 625-3290.

For an in-depth study of otters, UC Santa Cruz offers an extension course (including shoreside viewing) April 8 and 9. Cost is $75; call 429-2761.

Outside the Monterey Peninsula, points as far south as Pismo Beach offer possible viewing. Near San Simeon Point, the pier at William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach gets you out over the water. Also try turnouts along State Highway 1 from San Simeon 5 miles north to the Piedras Blancas lighthouse. There's a large group of male otters at Morro Bay.

Looking back: a history of decline

"Had you reported dinosaurs or ichthyosaurs . . . we couldn't have been more utterly dumfounded." So spoke marine biologist Harold Heath, confirming Howard Granville Sharpe's sea otter sighting at Bixby Creek near Big Sur, in 1938. The secret guarded by a few locals was finally out; until then, many scientists had thought California otters were extinct.

The California otter and two subspecies once ranged 6,000 miles-from Baja California up the coast to Alaska, across the Bering Sea, and south to Japan. In the mid-18th century, fur traders began a retentless pursuit of otter pelts. Finally, in 1911, with extinction near, the U.S., Great Britain, Russia, and Japan signed the International Fur Seal Treaty, offering a measure of protection. Even so, California otters now occupy only 10 percent of their original range.

Remaining threats, some future hope

Oil spills. Most experts believe that oil accidents represent the greatest ongoing threat to survival of the species. They're concerned about proposed offshore oil platforms "on the doorstep of the otter range." But oil tanker traffic already poses a danger: according to estimates, tankers carry more than 100 million barrels of oil through the otter range every year. A recent spill off Washington raised concerns about the safety of a transplanted band of northern sea otters.

If oil mats its fur, an otter loses its insulation (otters lack the blubber that keeps seals warm), and its body heat rapidly drops, leading to almost certain death.

Gill nets. Studies show that, each year between 1973 and 1983, 49 to 168 sea otters died in nets. Swimming underwater, the animals get tangled in the mesh and drown. In recent years, California has closed most of the range to gill netters. Biologists and the fishing industry are working together to develop safer gear.

A new chapter in otter recovery began in 1987, when state and federal biologists attempted to start a breeding colony at Navy-owned San Nicolas Island, about 62 miles off the Los Angeles County coast. As many as 70 otters were to be relocated per year, but no more than 250 over five years. Initial results have been mixed. Some animals died preparing for the move, and others swam back to their mainland homes. But several dozen settled in. Transplants resumed in October. Shellfishermen fought the first move, arguing that otters would destroy the area's abundant stocks. And otters do eat heartily, consuming about 25 percent of their body weight daily (for an 85-pound male, that's almost 4 tons of seafood a year). Move proponents fear that a single major oil disaster near the existing range could push the otters back to the brink of extinction-this time, perhaps, forever.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:California coast
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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