Yesterday I was on a mission to find sea otter pups. This is the peak of the annual birthing season, although sea otters give birth any month of the year. Finding a Southern sea otter is not necessarily an easy task around the Monterey Peninsula. There are fewer than 3,000 otters along 200 miles of California’s central coast. Many of these are found around the shoreline of Monterey Bay and the Big Sur coast. Point Lobos State Reserve generally has around 50 sea otters off its shores.
I arrived at Point Lobos State Reserve, south of Carmel-by-the-sea and decided to hike to Coal Chute Point, a direction I infrequently travel when visiting the park. Within ten minutes of arrival at Point Lobos, I heard the sound of a sea otter pup crying.
As I approached the shoreline with binoculars in hand, I spotted a tiny sea otter pup alone in the cove with mama sea otter swimming quickly towards it. She scooped the pup up from the cold water and onto her belly.
What happened next had me questioning mama sea otter’s wisdom. She swam directly into the surf between rocks with the otter pup. There were periodic large waves channeling between the rocks. Truly amazing was watching mama otter climb onto the rocks dragging her pup. Sea otters typically do not leave the water, but they can. This is the first time I recall seeing a sea otter get out of the water.
Now, I questioned mama sea otter’s judgment again? The waves were building and the young otter I spotted with my binoculars would be in a serious world of hurt if a wave crashed over the rocks and rolled the little fur ball across the hard, sharp granite into the sea.
Apparently mama recognized the danger too as she picked up the pup and went back into the sea. What I could not tell at the time viewing the sea otter mama and pup on the rocks was her handling of two pups. That realization was still several minutes away.
Mama sea otter swam across the small cove to Coal Point Chute, so named for its location as a ship loading chute in the 19th century on Whalers Cove.
Whalers Cove is named for the whaling station that existed from the 1860s to 1880s in the cove during the whale hunting era on the California coast. Whale oil was a primary source of lantern fuel prior to the development of kerosene from petroleum.
Loyalty Traveler – Shore Whalers History at Point Lobos State Park, California
California State Parks – Point Lobos State Natural Reserve Whalers Cove
Mama sea otter deftly swam across the cove in less than one minute. I scrambled back along the coastal trail to reach Coal Chute Point. It took me five minutes to reach the point. By the time I arrived at Coal Chute Point, mama sea otter was on her way across Whalers Cove to calmer water.
There were two other otters I had seen earlier in Whalers Cove wrapped up in sea kelp. I could not see any sea otter pups with them. Mama sea otter crossed Whalers Cove in about five minutes swimming on her back with the pups. It took me about ten minutes to hustle along the coast trail around the cove. Mama sea otter settled down by the offshore rock near Whalers Cabin, a Chinese built cabin from the 1850s that now serves as a park history center.
The Joy and the Pity of Sea Otter Twins
Not until I was at Whalers Cabin and mama sea otter was only about 50 yards away did I realize she was carrying two pups on her chest and abdomen. Sea otter twins are a rarity with about a 2% occurrence in births. Several park visitors had already gathered alongside the road to observe mama sea otter with her pups.
The sad fact is a mama sea otter cannot support two pups. The energy needed to support one pup challenges a mama sea otter who must nurture the young pup for around six months before it is independent. One of these pups will likely be abandoned within the next couple of days.
In 2013 there was media coverage about a mama sea otter with twins spotted at Morro Bay, some 100 miles south of Point Lobos State Reserve. Marine mammal rescuers watched and hoped to save the abandoned pup, however, fog came into the bay and there were no more sightings of a mama sea otter with two pups.
Tiny Sea Otter Siblings Fight the Odds – Wired.com (June 28, 2013) – this article has adorable photos of the otter pups.
Sea Otter Gives Birth To Twins In Morro Bay, California – seaotters.com (June 29, 2013)
Sea Otter Twinning: A Bittersweet Blessing – seaotters.org (August 6, 2013)
I feel blessed to have seen sea otter twins. Tearing myself away from the shore of Point Lobos with mama otter and her twins floating about 50 feet from shore was difficult. Sea otter twins was a sight I may never see again.
I contacted the Monterey Bay Aquarium to report the twins. Hopefully this story will have a happy ending with news of an abandoned pup rescue. I was saddened yesterday afternoon to look at my photos and realize this is a natural Sophie’s Choice decision that will play out this week.
I won’t leave you on a down note. Last September there was an abandoned sea otter pup found north of Monterey Bay who was rescued and raised by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Pup 681 is now named Luna and living at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
Shedd Aquarium Chicago – http://www.sheddaquarium.org/sheddpup/
Hopefully there will a happy ending to this story of the twin sea otter pups in Whalers Cove, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
Friday, Feb. 27 update: This morning I returned to Whalers Cove, Point Lobo State Reserve and I saw mama sea otter with one pup hanging out in Whalers Cove. One of the twin pups was rescued yesterday afternoon by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC).
Saturday, Feb 28 update: This morning there was a piece posted on the Point Lobos blog by Paul Reps that provides more of the story a couple hours later in the day than my photos. One of the pups was left on the rocks when a scuba divers’ boat scared mama sea otter into the water with only one pup. The abandoned male pup was getting battered by waves as it was rescued. Paul has good resolution photos of the otter pups on the rocks and the SPRAC rescue. Otter 696 is a male pup born Thursday, Feb 26 and currently residing in Monterey Bay Aquarium. Otter Twins!!