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Sea otter        Images © Mark A. Chappell

Sea otters are the largest of the mustelids (weasel family), rivaled in size only by the giant river otter of South America.  Nevertheless, they are the smallest of the marine mammals and consequently have striking temperature-control problems in the cold North Pacific waters they inhabit.   They deal with cold by having extremely thick, fine underfur that keeps them dry, and by near-constant eating to provide fuel for a lot of heat production.   They dive for their food and eat basically any animal they can catch; favorites include crabs, clams, abalone, and sea urchins.  Their luxurious fur was the sea otter's near-undoing: they were hunted almost to extinction for their pelts in the 1700s and 1800s.   Fortunately, protection came in time (barely) and the northern populations, mainly in Alaska, are largely recovered and seem secure -- although there has been a puzzling recent population decline in the Aleutians.   The much smaller California population is at more risk: there are only 2000-3000 animals concentrated into a small strip of the central coast, and hence they are vulnerable to oil spills and diseases (including, apparently, domestic pet pathogens, especially Toxoplasmosis from cats, that are vectored through feces that get flushed down sewers to the ocean).   A few translocation attempts to expand the southern range (e.g., to some of the Channel Islands) have been largely unsuccessful.

I photographed these otters in Moss Landing, California (more otter photos here).   I find them hard to photograph because of their long, thin shape that doesn't fit the frame well, and (frequently) the highly contrasty light on the ocean on sunny days.   An overcast sky -- as was the case for these images -- is quite helpful.

  • Canon 30D, 1D Mk. II, or 7D2; 500mm f4 IS, many with 1.4X or 2X converter or 800 mm IS lens with 1.4X converter, fill-in flash (2006, 2015)