February 13, 2008

One Hand Washes The Otter

Greetings, blogs fans. Back on February 2, I ventured down before dawn to Moss Landing Harbor with surfer, ocean activist and photographer Howard “Boots” MeGhee. Boots thought the readers of this blog needed to see another location and he was absolutely correct. Moss Landing is one of his favorite surf spots but what he wanted to show me were the birds and the early morning light. When we pulled into the harbor we looked out over the water and to our amazement there were over 100 otters in float mode. Usually I’ll catch just one or two doing the back paddle so to see this many was a virtual visual bonanza.

But then things got really interesting. All of a sudden a huge, dark object started slinking off the land into the water. It was the size of a small bear. At that moment I thought was watching a segment from “Animal Planet” or the Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth.” Three of them slinked on their bellies into the water and we realized they were otters. Just like Jim Rome, they were huge! It was the highlight of a morning that featured hundreds and hundreds of birds cruising by the various waterways at this crossroad of Monterey Bay.

Moss Landing is located on the shore of Monterey Bay, at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough and at the head of Monterey Canyon. It was named after Captain Charles Moss, who I believe is a third cousin of Randy Moss, who established a shipping port in the mid 1800′s. Moss Landing is also a world class beach break for surfers and according to Ben Marcus of SurfLine, “During the winter when the west swell is filling the bay and the offshores are howling out of the Salinas Valley, Moss Landing will take your breath away, in more ways than one. The swell that hits Moss Landing has come out of very, very deep water and hasn’t been slowed down by the continental shelf. We’re talking big, powerful, challenging waves.” And you know me, that’s all I’ll ride.

So let’s talk southern sea otters, one of whom you can see snacking in the last shot. During the fur trade of the 18th and 19th century, southern sea otters were almost hunted to extinction. Today, only about 2,200 can be found off of California’s central coast. There were once between 16,000 to 20,000 and the remaining can be found off the coast between Half Moon Bay and Santa Barbara. In 1977, the Fish and Wildlife Service placed them on the Endangered Species List so they are protected by federal and state law. That right, there otter be a law.

The current group of southern sea otters all descended from a single group of otters that survived off the coast of Big Sur at the Bixby Creek Bridge. Sea otters must eat at least 25% of their body weight each day in order to maintain their high metabollic rate, which keeps their internal body temperature at a toasty 100 degrees. They have more than 40 different prey items, but their favorites are abalone, sea urchins, crabs, clams, octopus and shrimp scampi over a little kelp bed of angel hair pasta.

On an average day, a sea otter spends 8 hours feeding, 5 to 6 hours grooming (then again, who doesn’t?), 11 hours resting and sleeping and two hours playing backgammon. Sea otters sleep in the water, sometimes joined by hundreds of others in favorite resting areas called rafts, which you can see in photo #1. Sea otters swim on their backs and use their bellies as tables. They are one of the few animals to use tools, mostly rocks and hand saws. They use the rocks to smash open the shells of their prey items and hand saws to carve little trinkets that they then sell to tourists.

Sea otters are considered keystone species, which means they directly effect the ecosystem in which they live-the kelp forest. They eat sea urchins, which are considered the most efficient and destructive consumer of kelp in California’s waters. By eliminating the sea urchins, the sea otters help the kelp forest grow. Thus, one hand washes the otter.

Here one more sea otter fact. Unlike any other marine mammal, they lack blubber to keep them warm. Instead, they have incredibly dense fur that traps air in between the hairs, which means the sea otter never actually gets wet. Sea otters have up to one million hairs per square inch. A human head has only about 20,000 hairs on his or her entire head. No Rogaine for these guys. Think about it, have you ever seen a bald sea otter or one with a bad combover?

So that’s our otter report. My favorite character in the movie classic “Animal House” was Tim Matheson, who played the role of Eric “Otter” Stratton, the smooth-talking guy who always got the girls. Or in the words of lovely Mandy Pepperidge, “C’mon Otter, it wasn’t that great.” Otter’s reply, “That great?” Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the dawn excursion down to Moss Landing. I’ve got a feeling they’ll be more trips with Boots in the future. Did someone say Big Sur? It’s like my meditation guru always used to say. “It’s either this, that or the otter. Later, NBA fans.

1 Comment »

  1. In the words of the immortal Moe Howard, “Why, I otter… Nice job with the word play

    Comment by brad — February 13, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

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