In many ways, the sea otter is responsible for the modern history of Alaska. Although they range as far south as California, early explorers had never seen them in such abundant quantities as they did in Alaska. Pelts brought to Russia after Vitus Bering’s 1742 voyage to Alaska prompted the Russians to sail to Alaska and set up fur-trading settlements throughout Alaska’s southern coastal region. The otters were hunted to near-extinction, but a treaty signed in 1911 marked the end of their decline. Sea otter populations in Alaska are now quite healthy. Sea otters are not related to seals or sea lions, but are rather a member of the mink family. Unlike seals, they stay warm in Alaska’s cold waters not by storing a thick layer of blubber but by having dense underfur that traps air bubbles to keep them afloat and prevent them from becoming totally soaked. This adaptation is key to their survival, so they spend a lot of time grooming.
Where to find them
Sea otters are seen from the Aleutian Islands, across the Kenai Peninsula and the Gulf of Alaska, south to the Inside Passage and even down to British Columbia and Washington state. They tend to stick together in small communities and don’t range far unless food becomes scarce. They are curious animals and quite gregarious. They are often seen floating on their backs, cracking open mussels or other shellfish on a rock to get at the tasty insides.
When to come
Sea otters are found year-round in Alaska’s coastal areas.