Photos and Words by Chuck Graham
I was kayaking between Point Arguello and Point Conception on the Central California Coast. The surf heaved across the ragged shoreline, and the northwest winds sent tumbleweeds bounding down the beach. Wave-battered and patrolled by great white sharks, this rugged and unforgiving coastline is also prime habitat for the southern sea otters concentrated between Monterey and Santa Barbara County.
Our kayaking trip began at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes National Wildlife Refuge in Northern Santa Barbara County. We were paddling the entire county's coastline, and one of our hopes was to spot some sea otters.
From Jalama, Ryland Grivetti and I launched from a deserted, driftwood-strewn beach, weaved across a dense canopy of giant bladder kelp and eventually toward the historic lighthouse overlooking Point Conception. Mostly inquisitive, harbor seals bobbed in front of us, but then we zeroed in on something different, something rolling atop the canopy. Southern sea otters like to raft up and wrap themselves in kelp to sleep and rest. There were three of them lounging on the canopy and then they finally grew wary of us ducking beneath into the dark cobalt blue water.
Before the fur trade, there were an estimated 16,000 southern sea otters in California. That population was nearly wiped out by Russians who forced Aleut and Kodiak Indians to hunt for them. Southern sea otter populations plummeted to less than 2,000 animals by the early 1800s. Pushed to the brink of extinction, sea otters possess the densest fur of any mammal.
But, with protections in place, sea otter numbers rebounded during the 20th century. The population surged so much that, in 1987, an "otter free" zone was created from Point Conception south to San Diego to appease the fisheries industry. Only San Nicolas Island was deemed sea otter habitat worthy within the "otter free" zone. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) translocated 140 otters between August 1987 and July 1990 from the California mainland and placed them on San Nicolas Island to establish a reserve population. Almost immediately that population was whittled down to a third. Some otters attempted swimming back and didn't make it. Others were preyed upon by killer whales and great white sharks.
But seriously, how do you hem in sea otters from exploring the ocean realm and keep them between Monterey and Point Conception and on San Nicholas Island? It's certainly not like herding cattle. It’s more like herding cats. Tracking devices proved futile, so USFWS leaned on reliable sources; boaters, fishermen and kayakers. Verification of those sources followed and when appropriate, the deployment of capture teams.
By 1993 there were no more otter removals from the "otter free" zone, but it wasn't until January 2013 that it was officially terminated. Needless to say, this did not make the commercial sea urchin fishing industry very happy.
"Termination of the program abolished both the translocation and management zones," said Greg Sanders, who once lead efforts to capture otters in the "otter free" zone for the USFWS, and is now a Marine Mammal/Sea Turtle Biologist for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Pacific Region. "It eliminated the obligation to remove sea otters from the "otter free" zone."
There hasn't been a huge influx of otters north and south into the formerly restricted region since the "otter free" zone was lifted. There are roughly 3,000 southern sea otters in California, and although expansion has been minimal at best north and south, there are indications that southern sea otters are exploring historical habitat.
"In my opinion it is only a matter of time before sea otters return to the Channel Islands National Park," continued Sanders. "If I were a betting man, I would say that we could have year-round occupation of some of the islands within the next 10 - 20 years, five years if you're optimistic"
As if on cue, there have been several reports of a few otters on the remote west end of San Miguel Island. It hasn't been determined yet where those otters are coming from. They're either venturing from the mainland population or from offspring from the originally translocated otters from 1987 on windswept San Nicolas Island. That population has finally rebounded to 80 - 100 sea otters, a good sign despite the failures of the translocation program.
"I am no longer surprised by reports of sea otters wandering along the Southern California coast, said Sanders, "and especially at the Channel Islands National Park."
Sanders didn't envision though another translocation of southern sea otters, this one to the National Park. He said it was unlikely due to the costs and political baggage that comes with such an effort.
"I am confident that, left to their own devices, sea otters will return to the Channel Islands National Park," said Sanders. "The question is where and when this may occur?"
The expansion of the southern sea otter population has proven to be fraught with obstacles. Some of those challenges are rooted in natural causes, but some being manmade. Although Sanders said there appears to be no evidence that sea otters actively avoid high populations and/or polluted waters in Southern California, sea otters may be limited by the availability and quality of suitable habitat.
During the height of the translocation program to San Nicolas Island, otters were located up and down the Southern California coast in places like Point Loma and Mission Bay in San Diego, and the Los Angeles Harbor and on up to the Ventura/L.A. County line.
More recently, small groups of otters are hanging out off Isla Vista and Coal Oil Point, where we have some of the most active natural oil seeps in California (100-200 barrels/per day).
After paddling around Point Conception, Grivetti and I surfed Government Point by ourselves. We returned to our kayaks two hours later at the bottom of the point. We launched from there and headed for Perkos, where we surfed for another hour. Later in the afternoon we paddled a little further southeast to Cojo Point. It was nearly flat but the giant bladder kelp still gently rolled with the residual swell. It was then we noticed five more sea otters lounging on the canopy of kelp expanding their historic range beyond the "free otter" zone.
Chuck Graham is a long-time contributor to C&K and has provided readers with great articles such as his paddling tribute to Hobie Alter and the re-opening of San Miguel Island after the clearing of ordnance by the Navy.
Chuck is also a great photographer and still shoots slide film. Read why here.