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Monterey Bay, California, USA

Michael Murray, Monterey Bay Aquarium

We’re trying to answer big picture questions, what is the health of the sea otter population. In this older lady you can see her teeth are in pretty rough shape. And that's pretty typical for old sea otters. She's probably 14 or 15 years old, the fact that she still has a pup is really a testimonial to her tenacity and how good a mom she is.

What we’ve been finding over time is that there is an alarming incidence of disease. Infectious disease specifically in sea otters. So by looking at individuals like this lady we’ll try and hopefully be able to answer the questions a little bit better.

Steve Palumbi, Stanford University

Otters are voracious predators. They eat a huge amount of their body weight per day in seafood. They eat fresh shellfish all the time. They eat abalone and sea urchins. So without the otters around, the abalone and sea urchins abounded and they destroyed the kelp forest.

Thanks to federal protection laws, the number of otters slowly increased, to about 2,500. Their recovery had a dramatic impact on the kelp forest.

And by 1968 only four years after the otters came back we were teaching kelp forest ecology classes on this shore. It was so vibrant and so thick.

California's Monterey Bay overlooks one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world. Its waters teem with life. Each year millions of tourists thrill to the rich variety of sea mammals living or migrating through the bay. The health of the Monterey Bay is a remarkable story, and it's all because of an unlikely environmental hero, the sea otter.

Sea Otter in Monterey Bay, California.

Sea Otter in Monterey Bay, California.

Small, cute, and furry, when not playing or eating, they're usually floating on their backs like aquatic teddy bears. Ironically, it was their thick soft fur that put them on the brink of extinction. By the time hunting otters was banned, their population in Monterey Bay was down to about fifty animals.

“In the early 1900s you’d see all these beautiful rocks but you wouldn’t see any kelp and you wouldn’t see very many of these birds and you wouldn’t see a lot of the other life that's really here because the kelp forest was gone.”

Steve Palumbi, Stanford University

Video Excerpt (Segment 4):
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As it turns out, Sea Otters are a vital component of the Monterey Bay ecosystem.  It is the kelp forest that sustains the rich biodiversity of Monterey Bay. Kelp is a giant weed stretching from the sea floor to the surface. Acting like a tropical rainforest of the ocean, kelp forests are home to thousands of species of fish and marine life. But when the otters were wiped out, their preferred food, sea urchins and abalone, proliferated and devoured the kelp beds of Monterey.

When the otter population returned, they suppressed the abalone and sea urchin populations. With the abalone and sea urchins back under control, the kelp forest came back and the health and diversity of Monterey Bay flourished. However recent discoveries uncover a disturbing trend, the growth of the sea otter population is slowing down.

Hunting for otters

Researchers hunt for otters

About a half mile off the coast a team of marine scientists are racing through choppy seas on a high speed chase to capture an otter.

Jack Ames, Brian Hatfield, and Tim Tinker are on a mission to recover electronic sensors implanted in sea otters. This will provide information about what is happening to the animals. The only way to safely capture otters is to sneak up on them from below, while they are sleeping.

As Jack and Brian prepare their equipment, the on-shore team discovers that the sleeping otter is not alone, it's with a young pup. Now the team must capture both animals or abort the mission.

As the divers enter the water, the wind picks up and the waves get rougher. A capture under these conditions is no easy task.

Swimming against a heavy current and with limited visibility, they must navigate through a quarter of mile of dense kelp forest.

Everyone's attention now focuses on the sleeping otter and her pup that have separated from the group.

The divers pause just below the otters. This the most critical part of the hunt. If the otters wake, they will escape before the trap is set. The capture is a success. But neither mother nor pup are very happy.

Once the team gets the otters onto the boat, they are rushed to nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium. That's when a team of veterinarians take over. Led by Doctor Michael Murray, their first task is to sedate the mother otter. Then they begin to gather data.

Though scientists still haven't discovered what is harming the sea otters, they know it's vitally important to continue to monitor the animals.

Just a few feet from the operating room, the sea otter exhibit at the Aquarium draws big crowds. Though back from the brink of extinction, conservationists are keeping a close eye on them, to ensure their survival as well as the health of the kelp forest. However these highly popular animals are doing much to advance their own cause.

The otters and the other star attractions of the aquarium bring in hundreds of thousands of curious visitors each year. They inspire and motivate people to learn more about the conservation of the world's oceans. However difficult it is to protect wildlife, it's a testament to the power of human ingenuity that we are finding ways to co-exist with the animals of the natural world.


Read more about The State of the Ocean's Animals:
Introduction | Antarctica | China | Florida | Japan | Monterey | Pacific Northwest


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