There are two distinct species of otters in British Columbia: sea otters (Enhydra lutris) and river otters (Lutra canadensis). Contrary to an error in an Oceanside magazine published last spring, there are no sea otters in the Salish Sea/Georgia Strait. An otter seen near Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo, Victoria, the Gulf Islands or even Vancouver, will be a river otter. The only sea otters in Vancouver are the three in the Vancouver Aquarium.
It’s common to mistake a semiaquatic river otter for a sea otter as river otters can be seen in the ocean as well as in fresh water habitats and on land. While river otters sleep on land, give birth in a den and nurture their young on land, they often forage for food in quiet bays and estuaries as well as in streams, marshes, and rivers.
Sea otters are aquatic marine mammals. They inhabit coastal kelp beds, sleep, and give birth at sea, and are rarely seen on land. Sea otters are commonly seen in large groups, while river otters are usually solitary or a mother with several young.
In British Columbia, sea otters are now found only in the Broughton Archipelago, on North Vancouver Island and along sections of the West coast of Vancouver Island. They were hunted to extinction during the fur trade from 1778 to about 1860. Between 1969 and 1972, 89 Alaskan sea otters were relocated to the north and west coasts of Vancouver Island. They are no longer hunted and today there are approximately 3,000 in BC. Sea Otters are classified at ‘threatened” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
Oil spills are a major threat for both sea otters and river otters. Not only can they be poisoned when trying to clean oil from their coats but oil can penetrate their fur causing hypothermia and death.
You’ll be fortunate indeed to see a rare sea otter!
To learn more about local plants and animals and to participate in walks, nature programs, and related activities check out the Arrowsmith Naturalists website at www.arrowsmithnats.org/ or call 250-586-4595.
— Nature Notes, by Rhonda Murdoch