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Southern Sea Otter

Plays an important part in its community

Order: Carnivora

Family: Mustelidae

Genus & Species: Enhydra lutris nereis


Southern sea otters are a distinct subspecies of the sea otter and can be distinguished from the other subspecies by its size, the shape of its skull, its geographic range, and the food it eats. Southern sea otters tend to be smaller than northern sea otters and grow to roughly 3.3 ft in length, with a 14 in long tail. They weigh up to 80 lbs, the males being heavier than the females. The guard hairs are long and water resistant; without them the southern sea otter would die. The underfur is soft, silky and velvety to the touch. The back is usually black or dark brown, the belly, neck and face lighter. The forearms are short and stubby and end in small claws. The back feet are longer and webbed, shaped like flippers. The ears and the eyes are small and the nose diamond-shaped. Below the nose is a "moustache" of whiskers.

Southern sea otters swim on their backs and use their rear flippers to move and their tail to steer. They can swim up to speeds of 1.5 mph. Southern sea otters have a life span of up to 20 years, with an average of 8 years in the wild.


Southern sea otters are found in the north Pacific off the coast of central California. They are found from Aņo Nuevo (near Santa Cruz) to Purisima Point. Another colony lives off San Nicolas Island. Southern sea otters used to range from British Columbia to Baja, California. Due to overhunting, they are now restricted to a 250 mile range. Efforts are being made to return them to Washington and Oregon, but so far this has been unsuccessful. Southern sea otters live no farther than 3 miles from shore. They are found in kelp forests, where they play a vital role in their community. They are found in groups called rafts that vary from 10-100 individuals. To sleep they wrap themselves in kelp so as not to float away.


Southern sea otters feed on 40 different species of marine animals, mainly purple sea urchins and fish. They also feed on crabs, abalones, snails, starfish, clams, and mussels. They capture their prey with their forearms and will use rocks to break open the shellfish. They feed while floating on their backs. To eat crabs, they set the crab on their belly and pull its legs off one by one as the crab scurries around.

Southern sea otters play a vital role in their community by controlling the purple sea urchin populations. Without them, the urchins would overgraze, disturbing the kelp bed's anchors. The kelp would break free and float to the surface, exposing to predators all the animals that lived in the kelp forests.


Southern sea otter females reach sexual maturity at the age of 4. They mate at any time of the year, the males with more than one female. One, sometimes two, young are born every two years. The males take no involvement in raising the young. The pups are born with their eyes open, their bodies fully furred, and their mouths with a full set of milk teeth. They cannot swim, only float, and so love on the mother's belly for the first two months of their lives. They are independent hunters at 7-8 months.


Southern sea otters are sometimes hunted by killer whales and great white sharks. Oil spills and other forms of pollution can kill them off in large numbers.

In the 1700's there were hundreds of thousands of southern sea otters living along the California coast. By the late 1800's, however, they were virtually wiped out by fur hunters. They were thought to be commercially extinct until a raft of 300 southern sea otters was discovered near Big Sur. This single group is responsible for all the southern sea otter alive today, which numbers at roughly 2300.

In spring of 1998 a survey was taken of the southern sea otter populations. For some unknown reason there was a 5.2% decline in the population since 1997. This is the third year a decline has been noted. The pup count also showed a decline, a staggering 48.7%, the highest yet since 1982. Again, it is not known why.

Southern sea otters are classified as a threatened species.


There are two other subspecies of sea otter, the northern (Alaskan) sea otter and the Russian sea otter.