Environment & Science

Sea Otter Awareness Week: They are not sea lions

An Alaskan sea otter is given a heart-shaped block of ice, presented by his keeper, inside its enclosure in the aquarium of an amusement park in Yokohama.
An Alaskan sea otter is given a heart-shaped block of ice, presented by his keeper, inside its enclosure in the aquarium of an amusement park in Yokohama.

You know how the news is — if it's not one thing it's an otter.

Sea otters! They hold hands while napping so they don’t float away. Sea otters! Babies get a seaweed seatbelt when moms go off hunting. Sea otters! Have you ever seen an otter muscle open a fistful of shellfish by smacking it against a rock on its stomach while leisurely floating on its back?


Naturally, the first rule of of sea otter awareness week: Don’t call them sea lions or seals. They are entirely different marine mammals, despite what Louis C.K. says.

The U.S. Department of the Interior sounded the alarm Monday that Sea Otter Awareness Week had indeed arrived. This joyous event "falls on the last week in September and is an annual recognition of the vital role that sea otters play in the nearshore ecosystem," says SeaOtterWeek.org

After being hunted into near extinction, sea otters — the "largest members of the weasel family" — were protected by international treaty in 1911, says the National Park Service. "Today, about 168,000 sea otters live off the coast of Alaska and Russia, with another 2,400 along the central California coast."

The U.S. Geological Survey said Monday that scientists are encouraged by a rebounding "southern sea otter" population in California — the animals have a range that spans the coast from Monterey to Cambria. Their growth trend is due in part to increased availability of sea urchins causing "a prey bonanza for sea otters." Localized population declines, however, continue to be a cause for concern.

Facts about otters from NPS:

"Sea otters average four to five feet long and weigh 80 pounds, but they can be as much as six feet and 100 pounds. The sea otter lacks the blubber, and consequently size, that all other warm-blooded sea animals need to stay warm. In place of blubber, sea otters have a dense coat of luxuriously soft fur."

And the fur on those blubberless bodies boast up to a million hairs per square inch that must be kept immaculately clean in order to protect them.

Notes KQED:

"The true insulating power comes from a layer of air the fur keeps trapped next to their skin. Otter fur has two special properties that make it especially good at creating an insulating layer of air: It’s dense, and it’s spiky … Their unique use of air bubbles to stay insulated and warm is what makes oil spills so dangerous to otters. Oil can mat down otter fur and keep it from holding air. Without the insulation the otter is left unprotected from the frigid ocean water. It doesn’t take long for oiled otters to succumb to hypothermia and drown."

Now it’s time for some videos. Too precious? Look the otter way.