A wild Southern Sea Otter mom, seeking shelter from stormy seas, gave birth to her pup in the ‘Great Tide Pool’ at Monterey Bay Aquarium on the afternoon of March 5. Guests and Aquarium staff were fortunate to witness the amazing birth of the wild pup.
Sea Otters can give birth in water or on land. The otter mom starts grooming her pup right away to help it stay warm and buoyant. Besides keeping the pup afloat, grooming also helps get the blood flowing and other internal systems revved up for a career of chomping on invertebrates and keeping near shore ecosystems, like the kelp forests in Monterey Bay, and the eel grass at Elkhorn Slough, healthy.
Monterey Bay’s Sea Otter researchers have been watching wild otters for years and have never seen a birth as close-up like this.
After a three-day stay, the wild Sea Otter mom and her fluffy pup headed out into Monterey Bay. There are busy days ahead as this otter mom will teach her pup how to dive, collect food and other skills needed for life in the wild.
By the time a pup is two months old, it’ll have shed most of its fluffy pup coat and be doing lots of exploring and diving. Soon it will be playing its role as a keystone species, keeping kelp-grazing sea urchins in check.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Otter Program has been studying the threatened Southern Sea Otter since 1984 with the aim of understanding threats to the population and promoting its recovery. They also rescue, treat and release injured otters; raise and release stranded pups through a surrogate program; and seek homes for Sea Otters that can't return to the wild.
Southern Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) once ranged from Baja California to the Pacific Northwest. But, by the 1920s, they were almost extinct due to intensive hunting. They were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1977. Monterey Bay Aquarium and their partners have contributed to the protection of the Sea Otter population in California.
Recent research by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Aquarium suggests that the Sea Otter population growth rate is limited by food availability. Meanwhile, the risk of a major oil spill remains a serious threat.
Sea Otters are an iconic species, representing the beauty and diversity of life in Monterey Bay. They're also a keystone species, determining the kinds and health of species in near-shore environments. They eat sea urchins and other invertebrates that graze on giant kelp. Without Sea Otters, urchins prevent kelp forests from forming important habitats for many animals. Similarly, their consumption of crabs in estuaries reduces predation on snails. The snails graze algae that otherwise choke eel grasses.
Sea Otters are also good indicators of ocean health. Since they are a top predator of invertebrates along the California coast, changes in their health can make scientists aware of variations in the ocean environment itself.
By 1911, when Sea Otters gained protection under the North Pacific Fur Seal Treaty, a small group of perhaps 50 otters survived along the remote Big Sur coast. Since then, they've slowly expanded their range and grown in number to nearly 3,000. As of 2014, their range extends from south of Half Moon Bay in the north to south of Point Conception in the south—only a small part of their historic range.
(All information courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium)