Canadian travelers Blaine and Mariette Viger were all smiles Friday while observing some of the record number of sea otters swimming, foraging and grooming themselves in the Morro Bay harbor on a bright afternoon.
Trekking all over the western United States, the couple has gone on hiking expeditions in Utah — despite some occasional nasty weather — and stumbled upon the colony of otters near the South T-Pier in San Luis Obispo County.
“I’ve seen otters in aquariums,” Mariette Viger said. “But I’ve never seen this many all in one place before. They’re so cute. Look at how the mom puts her baby up on her chest. The baby is just hanging out there. Look at how they twirl when they swim.”
I’ve seen otters in aquariums. But I’ve never seen this many all in one place before. They’re so cute. Look at how the mom puts her baby up on her chest. The baby is just hanging out there. Oh, look at how they twirl when they swim.
Mariette Viger, a Canadian tourist
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
California sea otters in Morro Bay and elsewhere along the southern coast have become a more visible tourist attraction because of increased otter populations in recent years, said Mike Harris, a sea otter biologist and senior environmental scientist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A survey taken in May of the Morro Bay harbor documented 36 adult sea otters and nine pups, a significantly higher number than the typical five or fewer otters frequenting the harbor in the early 2000s, Harris said.
“Our May survey was the highest count to date of sea otters,” Harris said. “Our goal is to try to count every otter. But with weather conditions and wind on the water, the census doesn’t document them all.”
Each year, the U.S. Geological Survey conducts a census of sea otters along the mainland coast of Central California from Pigeon Point north of Santa Cruz to Gaviota State Beach, and, in April, at San Nicolas Island in Southern California.
Over the past three years, the average count of sea otters in the California range is 3,272.
It’s the first time that the index, started in 1982, has exceeded 3,090, the threshold suggested by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether the species should be delisted under the Endangered Species Act. The threshold would need to be surpassed for at least three consecutive years before the species is considered for delisting. The index hovered in the 2,800 range a decade ago.
“We think that what’s really driving this is that the sea star population has been diseased,” said Harris, referring to starfish. “They’re big consumers of urchins, which otters also eat. The otters now have an abundance of food, and their populations are coming back.”
Sea stars have been dying in great numbers because of a mysterious disease called “wasting syndrome.”
We think that what’s really driving this is that the sea star population has been diseased. They’re big consumers of urchins, which otters also eat. The otters now have an abundance of food and their populations are coming back.
Mike Harris, sea otter biologist with California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Large gatherings of otters within plain view have attracted many tourists and visitors to watch the action.
“The otters make their chirping sounds,” said Thomas Pauley, owner of Tiki Port, which offers harbor boat tours. “They attract a lot of people who hang out around the T-Pier. They like to float on their backs out there. We’ve seen up to 60 or 70 of them.”
Harris said the female otters tend to group together and mate with territorial males, but the two sexes often are separated.
Eric Endersby, Morro Bay’s harbor director, said that the otters can get quite noisy, making high-pitched squeals, especially when a mother is separated from its offspring. The harbor department recently rescued an animal that got caught up in a fishing cage.
“They’ve gotten used to people and boats,” Endersby said. “They try to coexist in there with people.”
But officials encourage people to stay away from the animals.
“There’s a lot of otter activity, and some people try to get close to them and even try to touch them,” Endersby said. “But the otters might be resting. The mother and her pup also can get separated. It’s best to keep plenty of space.”