Morris Grover, director of the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay, photographed this sea otter Feb. 18. It is the first confirmed sighting of a sea otter on the central Oregon Coast in more than 100 years. - Morris Grover

Sea otter sighting stirs hope on central Coast

The fat fluff of fur seen floating in Depoe Bay much of last week turns out to be a wandering water mammal whose presence on the central Oregon Coast is causing shutterbugs to click and coastal ecologists to dream.

The endangered sea otter feeding and snoozing within the kelp beds outside Morris Grover's office at the Whale Watching Center there is the first confirmed sighting of a sea otter here in more than a century.

Its ancestors hunted to extinction in Oregon, this particular otter is entertaining dozens of daytime viewers and creating a living history lesson each day it spends in Depoe Bay.

"He's absolutely hilarious to watch," says Grover, the center's director, who snapped the identifying photograph Feb. 18.

"We've seen him crack a crab open on his chest, then tying himself up in kelp for a nap," Grover says. "These are some of the most joyous animals in the ocean, and to see one on the central Oregon Coast is amazing."

It's also potentially a huge boost to Oregon's near-shore fish populations, along with everyone and everything that relies upon them.

A re-constituted otter population along the coast could help restore lagging forests of sea kelp, which are key to the food chain for everything from black rockfish and chinook to gray whales.

Sea otters are a "keystone species" that can turn the tide in kelp reforestation, says Jim Rice, a biologist with the Marine Mammal Institute of the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

"Kelp forests are very diverse and productive ecosystems, and the otter could play an important role in establishing kelp forests everywhere they are not now," Rice says. "The potential is there."

For now, this animal with the densest fur of any mammal is floating, feeding and frolicking as if centuries of otter exploitation never happened.

"It's one of the great stories of wildlife restoration," says Tom McAllister, a retired journalist and naturalist in Portland who has studied sea otters for more than 60 years. "It still has its problems, but it would be great to see sea otters return to the Oregon Coast."

Sea otters long have been the target of humans for their fur, which contains a million hairs per square inch.

European and Russian exploitation began shortly after Vitus Bering discovered a large otter population along Alaska's Aleutian Islands in 1741, records show.

By the late 1700s, the Russian American Fur Company had an exclusive charter from the Czar of Russia to kill sea otters, whose pelts were coveted for coats and stoles in Russia, China and Europe.

The charter was for Russian holdings in Alaska, but hunters ventured as far south as San Francisco, McAllister says.

Alexander Berenoff, the head of the company and known as the "Little Czar," recognized that the heavy hunting could keep sea otters from sustaining their population, McAllister says. In 1801, Berenoff instituted harvest quotas on sea otters, the first quotas ever established for an animal in the Northwest, McAllister says.

The last one killed in Oregon was in 1906 at Otter Rock, records show. By 1911, an international treaty banned all sea otter hunting.

About 100 sea otters were relocated to the Cape Blanco area near Port Orford in 1970-71, and they were seen as far north as the Charleston area before they vanished in the late 1970s, says McAllister, who chronicled those relocations for The Oregonian newspaper.

"They just disappeared," McAllister says. "Those things happen in nature."

A few unconfirmed sightings have occurred in recent years, but none came with photographic proof until Grover captured this otter's image.

Most reported sightings are river otters that occasionally venture into the ocean to feed, so Grover studied the photograph for four hours trying to verify it, he says.

"There have been so many false claims of people seeing a river otter and calling it a sea otter, and I didn't want to put my name to that list," Grover says.

Grover passed it on to Rice for confirmation, and the identification was seconded by otter expert James Estes in Santa Cruz, Calif.

The otter could be a visitor from populations in California or Washington, Rice says. Or it could be from a small population living in Oregon, he says.

"I doubt this animal dropped out of the sky and appeared here," Rice says. "Obviously, he's been here a while to make it to the central coast.

"I've suspected there have been some on the southern and central Oregon Coast," he says. "It's just been a matter of time before someone was able to photograph it."

A healthy population of sea otters could help restore kelp forests a coastal balance not seen here in a century.

Sea otters once fed heavily on sea urchins, which now dominate the coastal ocean floor, Rice says. Urchins mow through kelp beds, which serve as refuges for black rockfish and the plankton that are the cornerstone for mysidacea and other shrimp-like creatures eaten by everything from young salmon to whales.

"The potential there is fantastic to consider," Rice says. "Only time will tell."

For now, even new photographs of Depoe Bay's most famous new visitor are on hold.

Heavy winds have kicked up the surf and the sea otter has been a no-show since Friday, Grover says.

"We have no idea where he is," Grover says. "Hopefully, when the ocean calms down, he'll be back."

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