In 1741, when Vitus Bering stumbled onto Alaska at the top of the panhandle, sea otters, whales, fur seals, salmon, etc were abundant. [For a timeline, many of the crew were born in the early 1700's; Benjamin Franklin was born in 1707; Montcalm in 1712; James Cook in 1728; James Wolfe in 1729; Haydn in 1732.] On their return voyage to Siberia, Bering and his crew were forced to overwinter on an island between the Aleutians and Siberia. Bering died and their ship was wrecked. They survived by eating these animals, which were as fearless and unused to humans as their counterparts in the Galapagos - there were flightless cormorants in both areas. The survivors built a crude boat from the salvaged wreckage and made it back to Russia in the spring. Word got out about the wealth of fur bearing animals and especially the sea otter with its luxurious fur. After only 40 years, hunters had practically wiped out the sea otter population in Alaska and BC. Within the last 50 years their numbers have been expanding through reintroduction in their original habitat and protection from hunting.
We love sea otters. They are very shy. So when they appear, it is a special treat. They are a close cousin of the river otter and are the only sea mammal that does not have a thick layer of fat for insulation. They retain their warmth with a thick coat (800 million hairs!) which they clean especially after eating but almost any other time when they are not playing or sleeping. Their hair also traps air to aid insulation but it also acts like a PFD (personal flotation device). They shed hair continuously; a molt would lead to hypothermia. One source says that a coat made entirely of sea otter pelts would be too heavy to wear.
Sea otters spend their life at sea (Bering's naturalist Georg Steller did see them inland on an island). They even give birth and sleep on kelp beds. They wrap themselves in kelp to steady themselves during storms.
|Sea Otter with Pup|
They are most important to the fishing industry because of their appetite for sea urchins, which mow down kelp forests that protect the ocean floor from erosion and give shelter to immature fish. However, when we talked to some fisherman in Hydaburg, they were not happy with the reintroduction of the sea otters, which they blame for destroying their clam beds. Maybe they will notice an increase in the number of fish they catch. Maybe not, since there is a lot of new logging here, which they say is destroying their salmon streams.