Tofino Wildlife: Sea Otters in Clayoquot Sound
by Adam Buskard, Tofino
Up until about 250 years ago the Sea Otter lived in great abundance
along the Pacific coast and around Tofino with numbers ranging in the
hundred of thousands. In the 18th and 19th centuries they were nearly
by fur traders.
Sea otters rely on their dense fur, among the finest
in the world, for insulation in the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Male sea otters live between ten and 15 years, while females live slightly
longer, to 15-20 years.
When not diving for food, sea otters spend most
of their time at the surface eating, grooming, resting, or travelling
from one preferred area to another. They swim underwater by vertical
undulations of the rear body, hind limbs, and tail. Sea otters sleep
at sea, sometimes joining hundreds of others in favoured resting areas
Sea otters must eat at least 25% of their
body weight each day in order to maintain a high metabolic rate, which
keeps their internal body temperature at 37C. Sea otters eat bottom-dwelling
near-shore animals, which they often forage for in kelp forests. Sea
otters eat more than 40 different prey items, but often have certain
favourites that they specialise in such as abalone, sea urchins, crabs,
clams, and octopus. Sea otters swim on their backs and use their bellies
like dinner tables.
Sea otters are one of the few animals to use tools.
They often use rocks to break open the shells of prey items by either
smashing the shell with a rock or by smashing the prey against a rock
on their belly. Sometimes, favourite rocks or food items are kept in
pouches of skin under the forelegs.
Sea otters are considered a keystone
species, which means they directly affect the ecosystem in which they
live—the kelp forest. Sea otters eat sea urchins and other animals
that graze on kelp. Sea urchins are considered the most efficient and
destructive consumer of kelp in the state. Sea otters, by eliminating
sea urchins, help the kelp forest grow. There are documented studies
that show that the removal of sea urchins by sea otters fosters the
proliferation of kelps and profoundly alters the composition and dynamics
of the kelp forest ecosystem. Enhancement of kelp beds by otters produces
substantial enlargement of fish stocks which associate with kelp.
bottom line is that the sea otter is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem.
Without the sea otter we will lose our kelp forests and all the biodiversity
associated with them.