Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A sea otter mother's devotion


All the mentions of sea otters in the popular media make them out to be cute, furry huggables. They aren't. They are nasty, aggressive at times and dangerous to other animals including other otters. Nevertheless they are interesting to watch and were a popular feature on the tours I used to drive. They were particularly helpful on gray, foggy days when our sightseeing boat plunged into the fog and you could barely see the railing on the bow, let alone shore.

On those days I could tune the radar so finely that it would pick up one of the rafts of sea otters that used to hang out in the bay we departed from. Once I saw the collection of small blips, I'd head straight for it and as soon as we spotted them, the gloom among the passengers began to lift. On those days I spent extra time with the otters to raise the optimism.  The crew knew that once we escaped the bay we would most likely break out into sunshine but the tourists never bought it when we told them that, at least not until we saw the otters. That improved the mood on the boat tremendously and people relaxed a little.
Over the years of observing otters I learned a little about their habits. As one example, you usually see otters floating on their backs with their heads up as if their chins are on their chests. This creates a blind spot directly behind them, and if you watch, you will often see them turn their heads nervously to see what might be approaching from behind. I learned that if I positioned the boat so they could see it and stayed within their sight range they would remain on the surface. But if I started moving around and it looked to them like I might be trying to get behind then into that blind spot, they would submerge and disappear. As a result our passengers usually got as much sea otter viewing as they could stand.

The most unusual behavior I ever saw was one day when I was anchored in a quiet bay while a couple of clients spent the night ashore on a mountainside. I was sitting on the weather deck toward dusk when I saw an otter drifting in the bay. Though light was low making it difficult to make out detail, it looked like she had a pup on her belly, they way they carry them sometimes. They moved around the bay for an hour or more, the mother leaving the pup floating on the surface while she dove for food. They were still at it when I gave up and went to bed and were there in the morning and most of the next day.

Though she always maintained a good distance between us, I noticed the pup never seemed very animated on her belly or when she left it on the surface while she foraged.

In time the clients came down from the mountain and signaled from shore for me to go get them. Once I had them ferried to the boat and all their equipment loaded, I pulled the anchor and headed slowly out of the bay. As I did I hadn't noticed the otter and heard her splash as she dove for cover leaving the pup on the surface. I drove the boat closer to the floating pup not wanting to scare it, but I shouldn't have worried. Very quickly we realized the reason it had not been animated. The pup was dead.

Given the lack of animation I had noticed, I realized  it had been dead the whole time I had been watching the otters in the bay. All through that time the mother kept with the baby as if it were still alive. We didn't touch it and motored away from it and I remember wondering how long the mother would keep it with her; how long after a pup dies does a mother hold onto her offspring?

2 comments:

  1. So sweet... Our boat is the "Sea Weasel," an Alaskan otter nickname :) I love watching otters. They're so friendly and sweet.

    ReplyDelete
  2. was just thinking got you Amanda--Tim this was a lovely post! My son loves otters and I felt dread when I read your opening words about them being down right mean, NO! say it isn't so but then to go and read the tenderness you witnessed was lovely.

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