The life of the sea otter

Story and photography by Frank Toller

These marine mammals live mostly on the North Pacific coast and typically weigh between 31 and 99 pounds. They are able to live their entire life in the water, in part because of a massive fur coat, the densest in the animal world. They feed on invertebrates such as sea urchins, clams, crab, and abalone as well as octopus and some species of fish. The otters will use rocks to scrape their prey and open shells, making them unique among marine mammals as tool users.

The sea otter population has risen from 1,000 to 2,000 years ago to 100,000 now. © Frank Toller

The sea otter population has risen from 1,000 to 2,000 years ago to 100,000 now. © Frank Toller

They can go onshore and occasionally will do so. The otters are very friendly and while taking these pictures on Jetty Road at Moss Landing, California [55 miles south of San Jose on the coast], I observed the animals allowing children to approach within six feet. The kids and pups seemed equally curious about each other.

Pups will stay with their mothers for six to eight months after their birth. Females perform all tasks of feeding and raising the offspring and are very devoted to their babies, giving them almost constant attention. They will cradle the infant on their chests to protect pups from the cold water and spend much time grooming and nurturing. When foraging, females will sometimes leave their pup wrapped in kelp to prevent it from floating away. Unless sleeping, the baby will cry out loudly until she returns.

Sea otters often use a rock to scrape their prey or open shells. © Frank Toller

Sea otters often use a rock to scrape their prey or open shells. © Frank Toller

The otters will spend much time floating on their backs, in kind of a “quiet place” of repose. They often eat in this position using a rock to crack open a clam or crab. In addition, they will sleep in this position.

Sea otters have the densest fur coat in the animal world. © Frank Toller

Sea otters have the densest fur coat in the animal world. © Frank Toller

The world population of sea otters prior to the 1740’s when aggressive hunting began for their fur is estimated to have been 150,000 to 300,000. Because of hunting, the population was reduced to between 1,000 and 2,000 but currently is estimated to exceed 100,000.

A raft of sea otters floating off the California shore. © Frank Toller

A raft of sea otters floating off the California shore. © Frank Toller

The animals tend to gather in same-sex rafts when they are on the water’s surface. Otherwise they will be at a depth of 50 to 75 feet. While rafting, they engage in much playful activity.

Sea otters are unique among mammals as tool users. © Frank Toller

Sea otters are unique among mammals as tool users. © Frank Toller

The future of these playful animals seems quite bright. It appears that they will continue to frolic in the water and provide much entertainment to those standing on the shore.


Frank Toller is a 73-year-old semi-retired attorney and amateur photographer dividing his time between Whitefish, Montana, and Graton, California (10 miles west of Santa Rosa). He specializes in the great outdoors, birds, animals and scenery. Photos above were taken with a Nikon D700 using a Nikkor AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens. This article also appears on his photo-essay blog “Photos by Phrank” at photosbyphrank.wordpress.com