There are three distinct subspecies of sea otter: The California or Southern sea otter and two subspecies both called the Alaskan sea otter. As a species, the sea otter ranges in an arc from north Japan, along eastern Russia to Alaska and south to Baja California. Sea otters may be distinguished from river otters by their flattened tails and molars, flipper-like hind limbs and propensity for floating belly-up. They use their rounded forepaws like hands to groom, manipulate food and use tools to crack open shellfish. These otters may live as long as 20 years in the wild and grow up to 5 feet and 100 pounds.
Only infrequently “hauling out” onto shore or ice, sea otters spend almost their entire lives in the water, even birthing in the sea. When not diving to the seafloor in search of prey like sea urchins and abalone, they typically swim, sleep and groom floating on their backs. They clean themselves almost continually, preserving the insulating qualities of their fur, which is the densest of any mammal.
This luxurious pelage was nearly the sea otter’s undoing. Widespread commercial hunting of their pelts commenced in the mid 18th century, resulting in their near extinction by the early 20th century. The International Fur Seal Treaty established protections in 1911, and populations have since rebounded, though the species is still listed as Threatened in California and British Columbia.May 07, 2012