Head to Cape Alava for a peek at sea otters repopulating Washington's coast
Special to The Seattle Times
In this ocean of raucous abundance, what we had come here to see was at first invisible to our untrained eyes. The sea otters' tiny heads looked too much like the thousands of bobbing kelp bulbs that covered the sea like flotsam.
But after adjusting our vision to the sea's grand scale, the little creatures eventually came into view, floating on their backs in rafts of 20 to 30, some snoozing, others preening, babies riding upon their mothers' chests as if they were passengers clinging to lifeboats.
Eight of us had carefully trudged up a steep trail that led to the grassy, spruce-shaded top of this thimble-shaped island a stone's throw from the beach at Cape Alava, in the far northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula. For centuries the island had been used by residents of the adjacent Ozette summer village, which was entombed by a mudslide 500 years ago, excavated by archaeologists in the 1970s, gradually inspiring a renaissance of the area's Makah Indian culture.
On the knoll where we now sat, Makah lookouts would have kept watch for migrating whales to hunt, and for the dreaded canoes of Haida or Nootka war parties. But this day, armed with binoculars and spotting scopes, we were on the lookout for sea otters and whatever else of interest we could spy. (The island is sacred to the Makahs and usually off limits to the general public.)
We were there as part of an Olympic Park Institute class on the natural history of Washington sea otters. Our teacher was a genial, long-maned biologist named Ed Bowlby. A nationally recognized sea otter expert, he has spent countless hours sitting in this very spot observing sea otters for his regular employer, the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, where he is the research coordinator.
A history lesson
It is difficult to fathom now, but observing sea otters is a relatively new activity for Washingtonians. Until 1970, no sea otters lived on the state's coastline, and hadn't for about 60 years, when the last one was shot near Gray's Harbor. That was, ironically, about the same time that an international treaty was enacted to protect otters. Except for a couple of thousand animals dispersed in isolated groups in Alaska and California, most of the Pacific Coast's original population of about 150,000 sea otters had been hunted down.
On the first evening of class, at the Lake Ozette Ranger Station, Bowlby showed us why otters were so prized. He passed around a coffee-hued otter pelt, and everyone took turns stroking the fur, marveling at its dense, luxurious feel. Sea otter furs, Bowlby explained, have up to 1 million hairs per square inch, the thickest of any animal in the world (a human head, by comparison, has about 100,000 hairs total). The reason the fur is so dense? It provides the otter's sole source of insulation from the icy Pacific (sea otters have very little fat, or blubber, as other marine mammals do).
So when 18th-century Russian sailors discovered that sea otter furs commanded extraordinary prices in China, where they were sold to members of royalty to decorate their robes, the sea otter's fate was sealed. Over the next 150 years, nearly half a million sea otters — or "soft gold," as they were called — were killed, mostly by natives (because no one else could catch them) who sold them to Russian, British and American entrepreneurs. Those first fur traders ignited the exploration of the Northwest, paving the way for white settlement.
Since the treaty of 1911, sea otters have staged a comeback in a few locations in their former range, which extended from the Aleutians to Baja. On their own, they've managed to repopulate the Aleutians to a great extent, and the south central coast of California. And with human assistance, they've gained strong footholds in a few areas of Canada — and here on the northern Washington coast.
Nature's food supply
Bowlby told us the strange saga of sea otters returning to our shores. It began as a "mitigation" effort by the U.S. government which, in the 1960s, was preparing to conduct a nuclear test on Amchitka Island, in the Aleutian chain. Hundreds of sea otters were captured and relocated. Washington, in 1970, received about 60 animals. From that original group, the otters have multiplied at a steady rate of 10 percent a year to their current population of about 600.
Not only otters do well at Cape Alava. It has a remarkable abundance of marine mammals and birds. As we stood atop the observation island, we could see eagles, herons, oystercatchers, barking herds of both California and Steller's sea lions, and silent groups of basking seals. Bowlby told us the unique shape of the offshore ocean bottom funnels abundant nutrients into shore, creating a thriving environment for plants and animals. And nearby Ozette Island dissipates the impact of waves sweeping in from the southwest, so the water is relatively calm.
In fact, Cape Alava has the largest diversity of marine algae in the world. When the tide is out the exposed sea bottom is a giant's salad of glistening greens and browns, of bull kelp and giant kelp and dozens of others. Bowlby informed us that sea otters contribute to that abundance by preying on sea urchins. Urchins love to eat kelp, and when sea otters keep urchin numbers in check, kelp forests thrive along with all the marine creatures that live within them.
Getting to know them
Otters spend about 12 hours a day sleeping and resting in rafts like the ones we saw, often wrapping themselves in kelp fronds to keep from drifting away. When they're asleep, sea otters look like diminutive monks, eyes closed, their two forepaws — which aren't protected by fur — held out of the water as if in prayer.
After a snooze, they begin to groom with a vengeance, rolling 360 degrees (without getting their heads or paws wet!) to force bubbles of air into their fur, which adds to its insulating value. Then individuals fan out away from the raft in search of a meal.
Or should I say meals? Otters eat with the voracity of a post-race marathoner at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Each day they must consume 25 percent of their 40- to 60-pound body weight just to maintain their rapid metabolism and stay healthy. In the human world, that would be the equivalent of a 200-pound man having to eat a pound of fresh salmon every half hour, 24 hours a day, every day of his life.
The otters' incredible eating habits, along with their expanding population, have already put them in conflict with a number of fishing groups. Bowlby predicted that within five years conflicts with fishermen, particularly crabbers and clammers, will come into sharper focus, just as they did with sea lions at the Ballard Locks. One of the subtle take-home messages of the class was that the best way to guarantee the future success of Washington sea otters, especially when they start riling the humans with whom they compete for resources, is to make sure lots of people know about them, think about them, and perhaps even advocate for them.
Bowlby said it may be an uphill battle, however, despite the sea otter's legendary cuteness factor. Most folks, he asserted, don't even know what they are, often confusing them with river otters, which look similar but are far more abundant.
Stop, look, listen
Even at Cape Alava, which Bowlby said is the best place on the Washington coast to view sea otters, most hikers are unaware of them. Sea otters don't haul out on rocks the way seals and sea lions do; they spend 99 percent of their time in the water, and usually several hundred yards offshore, where people can't easily view them unless they know where to look.
But they do occasionally forage close to shore.
On the last day of class, resting on the beach before hitting the trail back to the car, I spotted a lone otter feeding in the shallows 75 feet from where I sat. He was diving to the bottom, surfacing, splashing around, eating some crustacean or other.
He was there for at least 20 minutes, and several groups of beach walkers passed within a stone's throw of him.
They had a chance to witness a creature absent from these shores for much of the last century, in a place where they had thrived for at least 10,000 years.
But they walked right by without noticing him.
Scott McCredie is a free-lance writer who lives in Seattle.
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company