Sea Otter Safari

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.” -Henry David Thoreau

The boat slows, and I duck through the doorway from cabin to bow, then look back over my shoulder at my guests inside the boat.

“Keep your eyes peeled and your voices down,” I say in a hushed voice. “If you see something, quietly let the captain know. They can be quite shy. We don’t want to scare them.” Captain Diane throttled down to little more than an idle, snailing the boat alongside the reef between exposed rock and submerged kelp.

The tide is low, and where the reef is not exposed it is close to the surface. It is my responsibility to keep a sharp eye trained ahead of us for hazards. One look from Captain Diane communicates clearly that I need to turn back around. Though I am naturalist, guide, and photographer on this glacier and whale-watching tour, when I am on a boat, I am also deckhand, and that takes priority over everything else. The captain is in charge. That is the law.

Following the unspoken order, I turn around and take my place in the nose of the boat.

Behind me, two or three of the dozen passengers on our small whale-watching boat look through binoculars, another couple keep eye to camera, peering through telephoto lenses. The rest scan the water with naked eyes. It is one of the people without viewing aid who points through the large open window, and says in a stage whisper just loud enough for me to hear: “Is that one?”

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Looking in the direction several guests are now pointing, I see a shiny, wet head set on stocky, muscular shoulders rising from the water. Narrow set, coal black eyes peer over a black nose flanked by stiff translucent whiskers. Canine teeth clench what looks like a piece of shiny, olive-colored garden hose arching out of the water—bull kelp.

Captain Diane shifts the boat into neutral. There were no hazards within sight, but still I wait for a nod from the captain’s chair letting know I can relax the watch duty before lifting my camera.

The otter rolls on the surface, takes the kelp in its arms like a miniature pool noodle, ducks under the surface, then emerges again still hugging the giant green algae.

There are places in Alaska where sea otters can be found floating on their backs, holding hands, in rafts numbering over a hundred individuals. Unfortunately, the Juneau area is not one of those places. Here, we are thrilled any time we see one of these certifiably adorable animals. The most I have seen at one time here is three. This time around, there is one, and it is putting on a show, playing with the kelp and bobbing in the waves. And we have front row seats.DSC_8109.jpg

In the kelp forest, sea otters are a keystone species—keepers of the balance—in an ecosystem that depends on them. The kelp forest is a hotbed for marine biodiversity, home to many species that rely on it for shelter or food, and these biodiverse places rely on a balanced tension that hinges on the top predators, the keystones. Any time a keystone is removed, there is a trophic cascade—a domino effect—toppling one species after another down the food chain until the whole ecosystem become unstable and species are either driven elsewhere, or die off.

In the same way that removing wolves causes deer to become overpopulated and over-browse the forest, removing sea otters allow urchins, who feed on kelp, to decimate the undersea forest.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, otter populations were destroyed along much of Alaska’s coast lines by fur hunters. More recently, government regulations have restricted hunting and re-introduced otters in some areas, allowing populations to rebound, but that is not the whole story. Since the otter populations were reduced, commercial fishing has increased exponentially, and now that otter numbers are on the increase, otter advocates and fisherman are often pitted against one another. Otters are amazing hunters—legitimate competition with the fishing industry. It is not an easy balance to maintain, and there are continued battles to find just the right equilibrium to sustain fisheries and build and maintain healthy kelp forests.

Captain Diane re-engages the engines and slips the boat silently closer to the playful otter. Camera shutters click rapid fire.

After a few minutes, Captain Diane gives me the signal and I return to my watch as she eases back into open water. As the otter slips slowly from view, voices begin to rise in volume and soon the boat is filled with joyous laughter.

I high-five the captain as I come back in the cabin where I find my guests too busy gleefully sharing their photos to be interrupted by their guide. For most, this is the first time they have seen an otter.

Eventually, photo sharing turns into a conversation about otters, kelp, urchins, and the fragile balance of the ecosystem. This flows into talk of many of the important issues of the day: climate change, mass extinction, water quality, pollution…always circling back to the bewitching water weasels.

I wish there were easy answers for the issues we discussed on the boat that day, but there aren’t. We rely on the fishery to feed the world, and the balance of the ecosystems relies on the otters. Could we continue to fish the North Pacific without healthy kelp forests and otters? Maybe, but even if we could is that what we want? And what if we can’t? Just as the kelp forest relies on otters, the larger ocean ecosystem is reliant on countless interlocking and supporting pieces. Keep pulling out pieces, and eventually the whole system collapses.

When Henry David Thoreau famously wrote that “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” he probably wasn’t thinking about Alaskan sea otters and kelp forests, but his edict certainly applies here. I don’t know what is wilder than sea otters. I also don’t know what is more important to preserve than our oceans.

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