Oh Otter

October 27, 2017

Madeleine Humel

As we pulled our vans into the campground at Fort Worden State Park, located in Port Townsend, WA, I could see a bit of ocean glimmering by the edge of the park, calling my name and begging to be explored. After the trailer was unloaded and my tent was set up, my friend and I eagerly made our way to the water to catch what would be left of the sunset.

We planted ourselves on the pier of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, and as I glanced around the bay my friend exclaimed she saw something in the water! And there they were, a bunch of small sea critters swimming around right in front of our eyes. At first glance I could have sworn that those critters were otters, but weren't sea otters extinct in this area? A food web diagram of Port Townsend Bay was conveniently located on the side of the building right behind us. As we examined this display, the sea otter was nowhere to be found. The idea that we saw an otter in the bay was dismissed, we confirmed it was just a harbor seal, and we headed back to camp for the night.

Inspired by the sunset the night before, my friend and I decided it would also be worth it to wake up extra early to head to the beach to watch the sunrise. We sat on the same dock as the night before, waiting for the morning light to peak itself over the rolling fog. My eyes were also focusing on the water in front of me, hoping to see more seals as I did the previous night. Not to our surprise, it didn't take long until we saw the little brown heads of sea critters bobbing up and down right in front of us. While we were watching these small creatures swimming around, it didn't take long for one to dive down to catch its breakfast. Once the fish was gobbled up, a head went back down under and a long thin pointy tail jetted out of the water. This was surely not the tail of a harbor seal, but really one that resembled an otter. I was overcome with joy—I had never seen an otter before! But why wasn't the sea otter included on the food web?

Later that morning, we were lucky enough to be able and take sea kayaks out on the bay. As we headed onto the water, our guide told us to keep an eye out for wildlife such as harbor seals and porpoises. I was inclined to ask about my otter sighting earlier that day and why the otter was excluded from this area's food web. It turns out that the sea otter was hunted to extinction in the Port Townsend area around the early 1900s for their thick and high quality fur. The sea otter was keystone species in this area and the loss of them had devastating effects on organisms ranging anywhere from kelp to humans.

So why did I see an otter? Upon even further investigation, I learned that the river otter had filled the niche of sea otters in the ecosystem. River otters live in bushes next to the ocean and go into the water around sunrise or sunset to hunt for food. Although the river otter is not the original species, its newfound role has helped this ecosystem keep in balance. Nature is something that is always changing and adapting to human error.