For the uninitiated, it’s easy to confuse the two kinds of otter we have here on the west coast: the river otter, and the sea otter. They’re a similar size, they look somewhat similar, and both are found in the ocean (though the river otter spends more time on land, sea otters almost never leave the water).
Not so much in the Strait of Georgia, however, where we sea otters haven’t been spotted (bar a couple of sightings off the coast of Victoria) in over 100 years. Ergo, every otter sighting must be a river otter.
That is until this past June, when whispers of sea otter sightings off Mittlenatch Island and the southern reefs of Cortes Island starting making their way to our ears.
But first, some history…
You see, the sea otter trade on the west coast, like the beaver trade in the interior of Canada, was one of this country’s first instances of mass resource extraction. Sea otter pelts contain an incredible 1 million hairs per square inch, which made them incredibly attractive, and profitable, to European traders - great for them, bad for the otters.
First Nations peoples up and down the coast would trap the otters and sell the pelts to the traders, often for minuscule reparations, and in turn the Europeans would return to Europe with the pelts or sell them to Asian markets across the Pacific for incredible sums of money at the time.
By 1930, the sea otter had almost been extinguished from Alaska to California, and had been completely extirpated from BC waters. In 1788, when Captain Cook first bought pelts from natives in Nootka Sound, it is estimated that their population just on the west coast of Vancouver Island was around 300 000.
While sea otters were never as abundant inside Vancouver Island compared to the outside coast, one primary source that attests to their being here during earlier times is the log from Captain Vancouver’s naturalist Archibald Menzies, made during Vancouver’s voyage of 1792 through these waters in an attempt to find the North West Passage.
Menzies remarked on multiple occasions that the sea otters they encountered both in the ocean and hanging as pelts around First Nations camps were fewer and inferior to those found on the outer coast - but that they did exist - and his account mentions them with more and more frequency as the voyage entered the Johnstone Strait and reemerged into the Pacific Ocean via what we now call Queen Charlotte Strait.
Understanding, as we do know, the incredibly important role the sea otter, as a ‘keystone species’, plays in the greater west coast pacific ecosystem, 89 sea otters were reintroduced to the waters off Vancouver Island between 1969 and 1972 from a population that had survived in Alaska.
And over the last 45 years, this small colony of otters has grown to repopulate much of its previous range in British Columbia, with numbers in 2008 on Vancouver Island alone of more than 5000 otters!
However, none have returned to the inside waters of the Salish Sea.
The ‘Wild Ocean Whales Society’ publishes a weekly update of whale, dolphin and porpoise sightings in the Salish Sea (click here to check them out, we recommend it) - and in July 2017 we noticed some very interesting sighting information: sea otters were being observed, by multiple parties, just off Cortes Island!
This is very exciting for us here in Desolation Sound, with these sightings occurring in very close proximity to where we operate our kayak tours in the greater Desolation Sound area! The potential, continual presence of sea otters in the area definitely bodes well for the species in the Salish Sea in the future.
And why not?
With a diet that heavily includes sea urchin, we’ve often said that it can’t be a lack of food that has kept the sea otters from repopulating these waters. The warmer climate and water temperature may have played a role in the slow return and the smaller historical population of these incredible marine mammals (1 million hairs a square inch, remember?) but perhaps the lure of an easy meal is pulling a few of the more adventurous otters towards new feeding grounds.
Either way, we’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on developments of these reports going into next season!