tofino wildlife: clayoquot furballs - sea otters visit the photographer's website

Tofino Wildlife: Clayoquot Furballs - Sea Otters

by Dan Lewis, Tofino


In 1969 the US government began planning the largest underground nuclear test in us history, on Amchitka Island in Alaska. To mitigate effects of the planned blast, 89 Alaskan sea otters were transplanted to Kyuquot, near the north end of Vancouver Island between 1969 and 1971.

In Vancouver, opposition to the test led to the formation of the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, which went on to become Greenpeace, and an international campaign to end nuclear tests.

Meanwhile, back in Kyuquot, the relocated otters were having a field day eating all the sea urchins, and they began to migrate north and south from there. By 1998 they were appearing in the north end of Clayoquot Sound.

“Fur balls”, as they are affectionately called by the whale watchers, are now back in southern Clayoquot. This spring a raft of 63 sea otters was sighted in Cow Bay and we had regular sightings all summer around Vargas Island.

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) look very different from river otters—their furry white faces clearly set them apart. Sea otters are marine mammals and rarely come out of the water. Their large rear feet are like flippers. Their fur is thick and waterproof, to insulate them from the cold water. They don’t have a blubber layer like most other marine mammals, so they have to eat one quarter of their body weight daily to stay warm. Adults can measure as large as 1.5 metres and weigh up to 45 kilograms.

Their habitat is shallow water close to shore, typically a rocky area on the open coast with kelp beds nearby. During a five minute dive they forage for urchins, crabs, mussels, and clams. Any food they find is stashed under pockets of skin near their forearms. When they return to the surface they float on their backs eating their feast of seafood at their leisure, sometimes using rocks to smash shells open.

Sea otters were hunted to extinction during the 1800’s. It all began with a Russian shipwreck in the Aleutian islands. Biologist Georg Wilhelm Steller was on board and began hunting the otters. The Russians discovered otters have incredibly thick furs—a million hairs per square inch!

Russian fur traders returned to the Aleutians and forced the natives to hunt sea otters from their kayaks, which the Russians called baidarkas. A village’s women and children were captured, and if the men wanted to see them alive again, they did as the Russians ordered.

When Captain Cook arrived in Nootka Sound in 1778, there were still plenty of sea otters around. The British didn’t realize the value of the pelts they obtained until they arrived in China, where traders would pay outrageous prices for the furs. The otter fur trade had arrived on Vancouver Island. Otters were commercially extinct by the early 1900’s, and the few remaining were protected in 1911 under the International Fur Seal Treaty signed by the United States, Russia, Japan and Great Britain (for Canada).

Otters are known as a ‘keystone’ species, because of the key role they play in the ecosystem. When otters are removed from the food web, sea urchin populations explode. Urchins graze on kelp, so the kelp forests are decimated. Kelp provides a nursery for finfish to feed, rest, and hide from predators, so the entire ecosystem is effected.

In Kyuquot, when the otters returned, they fed voraciously on the artificially abundant urchins and their population grew at an average of nearly 20% annually. As they reached the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, they spread to new territories.

Some people are concerned about the return of the otters to Clayoquot Sound. Commercial harvesters of crab and geoducks are concerned they may have nothing left to catch. And First Nations people use shellfish as a staple food to feed their families.

Scientists believe an equilibrium will be established between otters and the rest of the ecosystem. Kyuquot has shown that this process will occur over a period of about 35 years. But the question local communities are asking is can we wait 35 years for the beneficial effects of the re-establishment?

And yet, with the kelp forests in such a poor state, and major unknowns such as global warming on the horizon, a healthy population could be beneficial. In the short term there will be a reduction in urchins and clams, but in the long run, with the return of the kelp forests, there should be a healthy, intact, functioning ecosystem with otters playing their key role once again.

Dan Lewis and Bonny Glambeck operate Rainforest Kayak Adventures, a sea kayak company in Tofino. For info visit their website at

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