The Beacon

Blog Tags: Marine Mammals

Thursday Trivia: Sea Otters

sea otter

A sea otter relaxes in Morro Bay, CA. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

By popular demand, this week we’re discussing sea otters, the smallest marine mammal.

Native to the northern Pacific Ocean from Russia to southern California, this charismatic critter was seriously overhunted for its fur – almost to extinction. It has been protected by international law since 1911 and its population is starting to rebound, but it is still considered endangered. Now 90% of sea otters live off the coast of Alaska. Sea otters can sometimes be found in large groups of either males or females, known as rafts.

The sea otter can spend its entire life in the ocean, including sleeping anchored to kelp beds to keep from drifting away. Because it spends so much time in cold water and has no insulating fat, it relies on its fur, which is the densest of any mammal, to stay warm. It blows bubbles of air into this coat, with 100,000 hairs per square centimeter, to keep water from penetrating to its skin.

The pictures you’ve seen are probably of sea otters floating at the surface, but they are highly adapted to life in the water. Sea otters have a large tail to steer and large hind feet that act as flippers. Sea otters can swim as fast as 9 kilometers per hour and stay underwater for almost six minutes while diving.

Sea otters also eat in the water, hunting invertebrates like mussels, snails and crabs. Otters often become "specialists" in one type of prey, depending on their skills and what is available. The otter stores its prey in skin pouches under its forearms while it returns to the surface, where it uses its chest as a table and pounds frees its tasty morsel using a rock. This makes it one of only a couple of non-primate mammals known to use tools. Sea otters often keep using the same rock for multiple dives, and have been observed washing their prey. Males are known to steal food from females.

Sea otters have voracious appetites; in fact, their hunger can be crucial to maintaining healthy ecosystems. In some areas, otters act as ‘keystone species,’ which means that they keep populations of their prey, such as sea urchins, strictly under control. Without sea otters present, urchin populations could grow rapidly and eat entire kelp forests; with sea otters present, kelp can live long enough to form forests.

Threats to sea otters include oil spills, killer whale predation, which is increasing as other prey options are becoming scarcer; infectious diseases, particularly toxoplasma; and being caught as bycatch, particularly in fisheries that use gill nets.

Learn more about the sea otter and other fascinating animals at Oceana’s marine life encyclopedia.


Continue reading...

Announcing the 2011 Ocean Heroes

peter wallerstein

Peter Wallerstein (left) releases a sea lion back into the wild.

Happy World Oceans Day, everyone!

Whether you’re on the coast today or not, we hope you pause to recognize the beauty and bounty of the oceans. Starting today, we're asking all of you to take a pledge to protect the world's oceans -- but more on that later.

And now to the juicy stuff: this year’s Ocean Heroes!

More than 500 ocean activists were nominated, 12 were selected as finalists, and more than 12,000 of you voted. The results? This year’s adult ocean hero is Peter Wallerstein and the junior ocean hero is Sophi Bromenshenkel!

Peter Wallerstein is the program director at Marine Animal Rescue, a project of Friends of Animals, where he has spent the last 25 years rescuing marine mammal in Los Angeles County. He has personally rescued 3,000 marine mammals throughout his career, and also established a team of professional responders that humanely rescues hundreds of animals a year, including whales, dolphins, sea lions and seabirds.

Fittingly, Peter was out helping a stranded California sea lion when I called to give him the good news.


Continue reading...

Ocean Hero Finalists: Peter Wallerstein

peter wallerstein

This is the fourth in a series of posts about this year’s Ocean Hero finalists.

For more than two decades, Peter Wallerstein has been rescuing marine animals on the coast of California.

In 1985 he founded the Whale Rescue Team, which is now part of Marine Animal Rescue (MAR), a project of Friends of Animals. Peter started a 24-hour hotline for citizens to report stranded or injured marine mammals, and he has personally rescued more than 4,000 marine mammals and birds in Southern California, from stranded dolphins to whales tangled in gillnets.

Thanks to Peter’s persistence, Los Angeles County now has the only professional marine mammal rescue team in the U.S. that conducts hundreds of rescues each year, working 24/7 if needed. In April he conducted 86 marine mammal rescues, 120 for the year so far.

Now Peter is working to address the lack of adequate care facilities for marine mammals. After a decade of work, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has authorized MAR to design, construct and operate a second marine mammal care facility in Los Angeles County.


Continue reading...

Morocco Bans Driftnets

© Oceana/Carlos Suarez

Great news in the battle against illegal fishing: Morocco has passed an amendment banning the use, possession, manufacture or sale of driftnets.

Known as “curtains of death,” driftnets are a type of illegal fishing gear that can be nearly 100 feet high and 12 miles long. Because they are so passive and indiscriminate, driftnets snag whatever’s in their path, including many marine mammals and other endangered species.

The UN passed an international moratorium on driftnets 15 years ago, and the EU instituted a ban seven years ago, but many French, Italian and Moroccan vessels have continued using them.


Continue reading...

Oil Spill Quote of the Day

Today’s Oil Spill Quote of the Day features Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, one of our very own scientists:

 From yesterday’s Guardian:

Some 1,020 sea turtles were caught up in the spill, according to figures (pdf) today – an ominous number for an endangered species. Wildlife officials collected 177 sea turtles last week – more than in the first two months of the spill and a sizeable share of the 1,020 captured since the spill began more than three months ago. Some 517 of that total number were dead and 440 were covered in oil, according to figures maintained the Deepwater Horizon response team.


Continue reading...

Ocean Hero Finalists: Suzanne Thurman

suzanne thurman merr

Suzanne Thurman with a Kemp's ridley sea turtle. © Kevin Fleming

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting the 2010 Ocean Hero finalists.

Starting today, I’ll be highlighting one finalist per day on the blog. First up is Suzanne Thurman, the founder and director of the Marine, Education, Research & Rehabilitation Institute, Inc. (MERR), Delaware’s only organization devoted to the response and rescue of marine mammals and sea turtles.

Suzanne has been participating in stranding response in Delaware since 1995, and before that, she worked for many years in environmental education and special education.

MERR, which is 10 years old this year, has provided stranding response to more than 1000 animals, beginning with one sea turtle that spent the night in Suzanne’s laundry room.


Continue reading...

Browse by Date