I was still glowing with delight at seeing killer whale and blue whale yesterday when I woke today. It was quite a misty morning as I headed along California Highway 1 to Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough. Here, I’d been told, I would see the cute sea otter. And I did!
I had a few false alarms with sea lions but eventually got to a place where I could see three or four sea otters in the distance – lying on their backs in the water.
The distance soon became the foreground as I drove a short distance to the car park on the north side of the slough (little estuary) to get a better look. I spent nearly an hour looking down on a sea otter feeding 10 feet below me.
He or she – I had a good look but didn’t see any ‘bits’ that would tell me which it was (so he’s going to be a ‘he’, as ‘he’ is quicker to type than ‘she’) – was diving and coming back to the surface with some sort of bivalve (I think). Lying on its back in the water, with its meal partly balanced on its chest, but held in its paws, he would bite through the shell and then eat the contents. Then the shell fragments would be discarded and fall through the water and he was off again to catch another mollusc.
My sea otter seemed very good at finding these food items as almost every dive resulted in a capture. When it didn’t, he would have a bit of a scratch (all done lying on his back in the water and paddling to remain in the same place with his back legs) of his chest, armpits, shoulders or head. Sea otters have very thick fur (rather than thick subcutaneous fat like most marine mammals) and that’s why they were hunted almost to extinction too.
Now and again he would come back to the surface, lie on his back, with not just a mollusc but also a rock. Once he had the rock in his paws and smacked it against the mollusc on his chest to crack it open but other times the rock was on his chest and the mollusc in his paws. The latter way made it easier when the mollusc was cracked, which usually took about 3-5 sharp smacks, to twist his body (this is all done while swimming on his back remember) and let the rock fall to the seabed again and carry on getting the good bits out of the shell.
Twice, the rocks that this amazing creature brought to the surface, along with its shellfish meal, and balanced on its chest to use as a tool, were bricks. Full-sized bricks! Sea otters aren’t small but to bring a brick to the surface to use as a hammering block to get your meal is quite a thing!
How did he know whether he would or wouldn’t need a rock each time – because usually he just used his teeth? How did he choose his rock? The biologist in me was coming to the top of my brain whilst the bottom of my brain was just going ‘Cute! Cute! Cute!’.
He occasionally looked at me – I think he was used to being watched. I didn’t want to be the one to leave – I thought he should go first and eventually he moved on to a new, more distant, stretch of water.
Across the slough there was a raft of 25 sea otters asleep in calmer water (with a western gull and (slightly oiled) Pacific diver). I went around to watch this group of sea otters for a while. They didn’t do anything except drift very slowly in the current. Now and again they’d all wake up and slowly paddle back, as a group, to where they started and then go to sleep again.
So, today was writing and cute sea otter time. It was an unforgettable encounter (for one of us).