What happens when Californian sea otters abandon their usual haunts to set up home in an exclusive marina full of yachts? Jamie McPherson meets the otters living the dream.
Strolling along the dockside, blinking into the grey drizzle, we followed local dive operator Jim Capwell past ranks of gleaming yachts, all nodding in time to the swell of the sea. We stopped at one called the Escapade, and Jim clambered aboard. He leaned over the rail on the far side and said hello to someone.
Only when we joined him on deck did we see that he wasn’t talking to a fellow boat owner, but to a female sea otter.
She was lying on the dock beside the boat, and, as Jim spoke, she lifted her head lazily and opened one eye. There was a flicker of recognition, then she settled back to sleep. Resting snugly on her belly was a tiny pup, also a female, born in the harbour just two days earlier.
The star of the show
The mother was about six or seven years old and something of a celebrity here in Monterey Bay, California, having abandoned life in the open ocean in favour of a busy marina. She was to star in a film for BBC2’s new Natural World
series, and, with producer Emma Napper, I planned to follow her as she raised her pup and taught her how to survive in the harbour. We hoped to work out why she had given up life at sea.
Sea otters occur along the west coast of North America, from California to Alaska, and are also found on the Aleutian Islands and around Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula (at one time, their range reached Mexico and northern Japan). The kelp forests that lie just beyond the surf are their preferred habitat.
These giant seaweed beds offer both food and shelter, and the otters swaddle themselves in the long, flattened kelp fronds so that they can sleep without fear of drifting onto the rocks.
You typically see the otters floating on their backs with other members of their family, forming a raft of cute, furry faces. They are perfectly at home in the Pacific swell; indeed, the pups, called whelps, are usually born at sea rather than on land.
Back in the harbour, our female and her offspring lounged on the dockside, out of the cold water, undoubtedly saving significant amounts of energy. The mother’s instinct to wrap herself up was still strong, and I’d often find her and the pup draped comically in the ropes used to tether the boats. In addition to a comfy and secure bed, the marina also provided plenty of food.
Sea otters eat everything from crustaceans to octopuses – everything, that is, except fish. They’re the heaviest of the otters, weighing up to 45kg, and are far better equipped for ripping barnacles off rocks than chasing flatfish or rock cod.
I would watch the female deposit her pup in a safe spot on a jetty and then dive to pluck crabs and barnacles from the pilings. Harbour life seemed to offer many advantages over the open ocean – but one of them I wasn’t expecting.
Yachts make perfect anvils
What really sets sea otters apart from your average mustelid is their ability to use tools
. They are renowned for collecting stones from the seabed and using them to smash shellfish to smithereens.
But our female had gone further, and learned that each of the marina’s slips (the ‘fingers’ of the dock that act as parking bays for the boats) contained the perfect shell-cracker – an expensive yacht. For her, stones were no longer needed, and so she could concentrate on collecting more food on each dive.
When she resurfaced with her supper, she would lie on her back and slam the molluscs against her chosen anvil. She knew exactly where the best cracking spot was on each boat: on some vessels it was the dive step at the stern, on others the bow.
A glance around the harbour revealed a lot of chipped paint – great for me, as her unique technique enabled me to capture some excellent footage, but rather annoying, I imagine, for the boat owners.
Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay
As I got to know the otters – my female, her pup and a male, who had held the marina as his territory for the past two years and fathered the youngster – I became friendly with the local workers.
Most were resigned to the damage the mother caused and forgave her, since she was “just about the darn cutest thing” they’d ever seen. They did their best to thwart her by hanging fenders, tennis balls and empty tequila bottles in front of her favourite anvils, though their tactics seldom stopped this resourceful individual for long.
When I first met the pup, sprawled on the boardwalk like a hairy slug, she regarded me with deep suspicion. I knew that expression – it was not dissimilar to the look of contempt my two-year-old son gives strangers. But I worked hard to gain her trust, keeping a low profile, moving slowly and talking constantly. I stayed on the dockside with my camera from dawn until dusk, and before long was rewarded with some beautiful shots of the mother and pup bonding.
This obviously isn’t the usual cameraman’s tale of countless days crouched in a bush waiting for a brief glimpse of a rare species. But spending my days lounging around with otters on the Californian coast wasn’t quite as idyllic as it sounds. I soon discovered that my assumption that the entire state was bathed in perpetual sunshine was far from the truth.
This was northern California, where, as the land heats up, it sucks thick banks of fog off the cold ocean. It was chilly and damp. Despite arriving at the marina before dawn each day, I didn’t see a sunrise for two months. My plan to film in the golden light of early morning fell by the wayside.
All summer long
After several weeks of sitting on the drizzly dockside, I’d become part of the otter family. The female would often place the pup by my feet, leaving me to babysit while she went off diving for barnacles, and the youngster to tug playfully on my shoelaces.
The pup grew fast, getting more active every day, and was soon bounding into the water (an athletic feat by sea otter standards: the adults lumber around on land like a cross between a seal and a fat labrador). Her personality began to show as she became more impetuous – her mum often had to herd her out of harm’s way.