The Bay

Sea Otter Confirmed in Tomales Bay for First Time in Almost a Decade

February 6, 2014

Several boaters spotted and photographed a sea otter feeding in Tomales Bay this week, the first confirmed sighting of a sea otter in the bay since 2005.

Nature photographer Richard Blair took the above photo from the boat of longtime Inverness conservationist Richard Plant on Monday, Feb. 3. Brett Miller, who was leading a Saturday kayak trip for Point Reyes Outdoors, also photographed the otter swimming through the bay.

National Park Service biologist Sarah Allen said the otter was probably a male, and likely stopping by on its way back to the southern sea otters’ “core area” between Half Moon Bay and Point Conception. Male sea otters disperse around the  California coast in the winter, Allen said, before returning to the core area around this time of year. And while they’re unusual but not unheard-of on the outer coast outside Tomales Bay, to see them actually enter the bay is something rare.

“It’s kind of like a whale coming in the bay,” Allen said. “They’re unusual, you’ll see them for a while, they’ll leave.”

Even more exciting would be to spot a female, since females generally don’t disperse in the winter and so a sighting might be a sign that the entire population of California sea otters was expanding its range. After a slow recovery from near-extinction in the 1930s California sea otters have struggled for the past decade, with the population fluctuating between 2,500-3,000 individuals, according to data from the US Geological Survey. The most recent three-year population average, released by the USGS in November, was 2,882, up from 2,792 in 2012.

While the incredible abundance of sea otters in San Francisco Bay and along the California coast is well documented, Allen said there’s not  much information about the otters’ historical presence in Tomales Bay.

sea otter eating crab in Tomales Bay
A sea otter munches on a crab in Tomales Bay on Monday. (Photo by Richard Blair)

Filling out your taxes? You can check a box, line 410, on your state income tax form 540 to support the California Sea Otter Fund, which funds sea otter research and conservation in California. For further instructions, see the California Sea Otter Tax Check-off page at Friends of the Sea Otter.

About the Author

Eric Simons is a former digital editor at Bay Nature. He is author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans and Darwin Slept Here, and is coauthor, with Tessa Hill, of At Every Depth: Our Growing Knowledge of the Changing Oceans.

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