Last week, two employees of the Crystal Cove Alliance spotted a sea otter playing in the surf near Laguna Beach. It’s only the second sighting of sea otters in the area in more than 30 years, and a welcome sign of a possible resurgence of sea otters in Southern California. There have also been at least two reported sightings off San Clemente.

The otter was nicknamed “Ollie” by two employees of the Crystal Cove Alliance.

Once abundant, sea otters virtually disappeared from the area about 100 years ago. A thriving fur trade from the late 1700s to the early 1900s nearly brought the animals to the brink of extinction until the passage of a protective measure in 1911 at the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention. In 1973, they were listed as an endangered species, which further protected them from incidental or accidental take from commercial fishing operations, and also protected vital habitat locations.

The southern sea otter once roamed the Pacific coast from the Oregon/Washington border all the way down to Baja, Mexico. Over the past 100 years, otters have expanded their territory from the Morro Bay area north and south. In 2012, the population was estimated at 2,792, according to a 2012 U.S. Geological Survey. In 2014, that number rose to 2,944.

A female adult sea otter with her infant. Photo taken in northern California.

A female adult sea otter with her infant. Photo taken in northern California.

In addition to improved habitat and protections given to them, the otters could be returning to the area due to an increased food supply. Crystal Cove is a marine conservation area, where fishing is limited at certain times of the year, and studies show there are a lot of fish and plankton in the area. The otter, nicknamed “Ollie”, was seen first eating an octopus, then a lobster.

Adult sea otters typically weigh between 31 and 99 pounds, making them the heaviest members of the weasel family, but among the smallest marine mammals. The sea otter’s primary form of insulation is an exceptionally thick coat of fur, which is the densest in the animal kingdom. In the wild, sea otters live to a maximum age of 23 years, with average lifespans of 10–15 years for males and 15–20 years for females.