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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Keeping Sea Otters Wild: Kayakers, Paddlers and Boaters Can Help

People using coastal waters play a vital role in giving sea otters the space they need to live and raise their young

Serenity in the slough video

Recently, an online video went viral showing a southern sea otter jumping into a kayak in coastal California. Most of us are thrilled at the prospect of being close to a beautiful wild animal, and videos like these may seem adorable and harmless. But did you know they can actually hurt sea otters? That’s because they encourage other people to seek out similar interactions. While aww-inspiring for sea otter lovers, too-close encounters like this could have unintended and tragic consequences for both sea otters and people.

   gathering of sea otters in waterSea otters interact in the mostly male "bachelor" raft in coastal California. Photo by Lilian Carswell/USFWS

Most of the time, sea otters will try to ignore or avoid people, but in areas where they’ve become used to high levels of human activity, they will sometimes approach boats or kayaks. Every time a sea otter is allowed to climb onto a boat or kayak, the behavior is reinforced, meaning it’s even more likely to happen again. A sea otter that loses its wildness will quickly become bold, potentially aggressive and possibly dangerous. Sea otters are related to wolverines, so it’s no surprise that they have a powerful bite, which they use to crack open clams and other invertebrates that they collect from the slough bottoms. A sea otter that has lost its natural fear of humans may have to be removed from the wild. This outcome is tragic, but the good news is that it’s preventable.

What to do

   kayakers paddling past ottersTo avoid disturbing resting sea otters, kayakers should stay at least five kayak-lengths away, which is about 20 meters or 60 feet, remain parallel to the animal(s) instead of pointing directly toward them, and keep moving slowly but steadily past them. Photo by Lilian Carswell/USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Sea Otter Savvy ask that you follow these simple tips to keep yourself safe and sea otters wild:

  • If you are in an area where sea otters are known to be present, keep a safe distance. If the sea otter notices you, you are too close and should immediately back away.
  • To avoid disturbing sea otters, kayakers, paddle-boarders, boaters and other recreational users of coastal waters should stay at least five kayak-lengths away—about 20 meters or 60 feet—remain parallel to the animal(s) instead of pointing directly toward them, and keep moving slowly but steadily past the animals.
  • If a sea otter approaches your boat or kayak, the best and safest thing to do is to paddle away. Not only will you keep a safe distance—and encourage the sea otter to do the same—you’ll also increase your stability in the water. Having a 60-pound wild animal climb onto your stationary kayak could tip you into the water.
  • If paddling away does not discourage the sea otter and it attempts to climb onto your kayak, use your paddle to block access.
  • otter on back in water   A southern sea otter settles down to rest in a small patch of Egregia (feather boa kelp) near the north jetty in Moss Landing. Just like people, sea otters need copious amounts of rest to build energy to find food and raise their young. Photo by Lilian Carswell/USFWS
  • Never try to pet a wild sea otter, or push or grab it with your hands.
  • If you’re on shore with your dog or another pet, keep your animal on a leash and never allow interactions, even if the animals appear to be playing.
  • Never feed sea otters or other wildlife. Wild animals that are fed can become aggressive.
  • Southern sea otters are listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act and are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits harassing, hunting, capturing or killing marine mammals. Approaching a sea otter so closely that it changes its behavior may constitute a violation of this law.
  • Be a good sea otter steward off the water. Recognize that videos and photos of habituated behavior may promote similarly inappropriate and dangerous interactions with wildlife in the future.

Your behavior can help protect and save sea otters!

   warning sign showing drawing of kayaker getting bitten by an otterSigns at Moss Landing Harbor in California encourage paddlers, kayakers and boaters to keep a safe distance from southern sea otters with this catchy limerick. Photo courtesy of Sea Otter Savvy

Check out our latest feature story, “Serenity in the slough: Sea otters lure the world to tiny coastal town,” which highlights how boaters, kayakers, paddleboarders  and others play a vital role in giving sea otters the space they need to live and raise their young. 

Learn more about Sea Otter Savvy, an educational program offering an organized and long-term approach to address human-caused disturbance to these remarkably charismatic and unique animals that once teetered on the edge of extinction. Sea Otter Savvy’s advisory panel includes staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Monterey Bay Aquarium. Complete viewing guidelines can be found here.

Let’s enjoy the recovery of sea otters – from a safe distance!

You are stretching the definition in the MMPA of harassment to ‘disturbing’. This is most disturbing. Creating a perception of “violations” for natural interactions is excessive and beyond scope. Government agencies should resist the urge to extend their “guidelines” beyond the written law. Ditto with reinterpretations beyond the scope and intent of the original law.
# Posted By | 8/6/18 5:16 PM

Thank you for your feedback. Giving tips on how to respectfully
interact with these animals is meant to prevent the violation of a
law, not to rework it. Our goal in sharing these tips is to educate
the public about best practices and prevent future unsafe interactions.
# Posted By Fish and Wildlife Service | 8/9/18 7:35 AM
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