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

by on February 06, 2014

A sea otter visits Tomales Bay. Photo by Richard Blair, EnvironmentalEye.org
A sea otter visits Tomales Bay. Photo by Richard Blair, EnvironmentalEye.org

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.

Most recent in Habitats: Freshwater, Bay, Marine

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Michael Andrews on February 7th, 2014 at 12:07 am

I live in the East SF Bay and sea kayak in Tomales Bay several times a year. I have seen a single sea otter near the darker low-lying rocky cliffs To the south of the White bluffs cove below Pierce Point Ranch on at least 2 occasions since 2006. Please inquire about localized sightings in your reporting

mary jane schramm on February 7th, 2014 at 1:18 pm

It’s thrilling to come across our rarer visitors to the area’s bays and estuaries – and even open ocean. However, please keep in mind that sea otters and other marine mammals like seals/sea lions, whales and dolphins, are protected by the national Marine Mammal Protection Act. Federal officials advise to keep a minimum of 300 feet distance, and never disturb them in any way. Watch them watching you … if they notice you, you’re too close! But do enjoy them while their here … using your binoculars or long-lens cameras. That way, you’re seeing their natural behaviors, in their natural habitat!

And did you know that Tomales Bay is part of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, which provides wildlife with added protection? FInd out more about us at http://farallones.noaa.gov

Mary Jane Schramm
Outreach & Media Specialist
NOAA’s Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary

Josiah Clark on February 8th, 2014 at 8:54 am

Here is my video from over a year ago of sea otter hanging out in the bullwhip kelp between feedings in Morro Bay in San Louis Obispo. This one seemed to have a very red nose and may have some sort of skin irritation. The entire population of this species came from a tiny relict population rediscovered near Carmel after it was thought extinct due to over hunting. Sea Otters are the smallest marine mammal, a member of the weasel family and are a commonly used textbook example of a true “keystone species”.


Bay Nature Staff on February 8th, 2014 at 11:27 am

Thanks for sharing this, Josiah!

Bev Von Dohre on February 8th, 2014 at 4:45 pm

I was told by Pt. Reyes rangers and naturalists that sea otters who show up off the Pt. Reyes coast are captured and brought back to the Monterey area, which is not a good idea considering the population there has suffered from dying from parasites in cat feces that humans have flushed. A population further away from sewage and humans, like along Pt. Reyes, would be safer. I speculated that perhaps they were brought back for the tourist industry and the rangers said, “That’s what we were thinking.”

If anyone has any influence over this, it would be good to let them return to their former range, plus we’d love to see them back in Marin.

Steve Shimek on February 8th, 2014 at 7:49 pm

Hi everyone! It really is exciting when a sea otter shows up outside the normal range. They usually are young-adult males that do the wandering.

Josiah mentioned seeing an otter with a red nose in Morro Bay. That could have been a female. Male otters often bite the nose of a female when mating. Much has been made of this in the popular press suggesting it is aberrant behavior. It is normal for otters.

Bev mentioned otters being captured and put back in Monterey. This is generally not the case. Sea otters can venture north as they please. Occasionally, an otter that has been rehabilitated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium needs to be recaptured if it somehow in trouble. But otters venturing north are free to roam. The cat feces theory is one small reason for the plight of otters. Water pollution including stormwater runoff (that can carry parasites) and agricultural pollution are very important in my opinion.

Until recently, there was a “no-otter zone” in southern California. My organization, The Otter Project, together with the Environmental Defense Center sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service to end the zone, and today the zone is gone. Several fishing groups are now suing the government to get the zone back and we are intervening to make sure the otters are free to return to their natural habitat.

Bev, be assured if there were ever a zone proposed in northern California, we would be there to make sure the otter is represented in court.

Finally, we are always interested to hear of sea otter sightings outside of the normal range (Half Moon Bay to Santa Barbara). Pictures are helpful because some people are more accurate with their identifications than others. And, river otters do occasionally venture out to sea! Someone once sent me terrific pictures of river otters off the Mendocino Coast!

Steve Shimek
The Otter Project

Marine@Green Global Travel on February 9th, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Watching them float on the water’s surface is gives this sense of serenity, it’s a great picture. But be careful not to get too close to them; they are protected and shouldn’t be disturbed!

Sandra Harris on July 28th, 2014 at 8:08 pm

So exciting! We just spotted 3 otters about 100 feet off the shoreline approx. 1/2 mile south of Nick’s Cove today about 7:30 p.m. They were happily feeding and frolicking. So cute!!!!!

Mrs R on June 22nd, 2015 at 7:26 am

We saw 2 pairs of river otters in Tomales Bay (again just south of Nicks Cove) over the weekend. We also saw what I think was a sea otter – he was some way away, but was floating on his back – he lost some of his catch to a seagull, but stayed around and was happily fishing close

Chris rizzi on November 5th, 2016 at 6:04 pm

Love these gentle little creatures of the bay!

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