Good news from the bluffs and bays of the Central California coast: Sea otters are flocking to the area in record numbers—data that suggests the population is healthier than it has been at any point in recent history.
The beaches of San Luis Obispo County have been a hotbed of otter activity, specifically those around Morro Bay and Cayucos. A recent article in the San Luis Obispo Tribune noted that the last few population surveys have turned up so many animals that the counts for the first time exceed the threshold for delisting under the Endangered Species Act.
Animals must exceed the threshold for three consecutive years before they can be delisted.
The annual surveys are conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey. During the counts, technicians and researchers fan out along the mainland coast of Central California from Pigeon Point north of Santa Cruz to the beach at Gaviota State Park. These people look for otters and count them. Most of the otters congregate in shallow bays and marinas, making them easy (for all of us) to spot from shore or rented kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.
The surveys began in the late 1980s, and, at least prior to this year, the number of local otters had not exceeded 3,090—the same threshold for delisting. This past year, the average count of sea otters in the Central Coast area exceeded 3,250.
Scientists say it looks like this population boom will continue—at least for the next few years.
According to a spokesperson from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, “The story of the return of sea otters to the Monterey Bay/Central Coast area isn’t a new one.” Past coverage from local television stations proves this point. Still, many locals and visitors who have never seen otters in the wild are excited about the prospect of having more of these furry friends descending on their home communities.
What might be prompting the comeback? Researchers are releuctant to jump to conclusions, but most agree it has everything to do with otters’ favorite snack: urchins. Sea stars often compete with otters to eat urchins, but a seasonal drop in the sea star population has left more urchins for the otters.
Whatever is causing the local otter population to surge, make sure to enjoy them—but don’t touch. Otters look cute, but they can be pretty vicious when provoked.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.