Ode To A Sea Otter Mom


Motherhood?  What a joy, and at times, what a burden!  The last few years Pat and I photographed images for a Sea Otter Calendar with Pomegranate Publishers.  This project included numerous trips to California and Alaska coastlines to photograph these unique, intriguing, and adorable marine mammals.  We’ve spent hours, days really, recording the interaction between sea otter mothers and their pups.

For the first week or two the newborn pup can be quite compliant.  It sleeps much of the time, needs help moving about on its mother’s chest, and floats but doesn’t swim.  It lets mom turn it, twist it, flop it into the water as she grooms and cleans her precious pup. But then like the terrible twos of human youngsters, the pup wants to explore, be entertained, be its own willful little being.


A pesky pup trying to get its tired mom to play.



Typically, the mom spends much of her morning searching for food.  She has one of the richest, densest fur coats on the planet, but living in cold, ocean waters 24/7 uses a lot of calories.  Constant nursing and pup care increases her caloric need. She carries pup on her chest to a hunting location, slides the pup off her chest into the water where it bobs along while she dives down to the ocean floor to hunt clams, muscles, crabs, and other sea life.  Each dive usually takes anywhere from a minute to 5 minutes before she pops to the surface to feed on her catch.  During her dive, the pup has drifted off and she spends a minute or two calling to find where the tide has taken her bundle of joy. She swims to retrieve it and tows it back to her hunting location, then dives again. She repeats this process over and over again until she has captured enough nutrition, often requiring several hours of strenuous activity.

Finally near midday she heads into a sheltered cove for a nap with other moms and pups who frequently form a raft by rolling in seaweed or grass to keep anchored with the shifting tides and currents.  The youngster had napped while mom hunted and fed, but now as she stops to rest and groom, the pup is ready to explore and play, It crawls up over her head, then slips back into the water, bites mom’s hind flippers, tries to nurse from another mom, climbs up on another resting otter, wakes up a neighboring baby to see if it wants to play. and in all becomes a pest to the whole group. The mom frequently needs to wake and go rescue the pup from crabby neighbors who snap at the errant pup.


This winter Pat and I watched one young pup who was fascinated by the rocks along the shore line and repeatedly swam over to explore. Mom would call, race over, grab a mouthful of fur on the back of pup’s neck and drag it back to the resting area.  Immediately as soon as she let him go it swam back to the rocks over and over again. One could just watch the mom become exasperated.  Finally she pulled the pup back to her resting spot, pulled it up on her chest and using her front paws and hind flippers she clamped the pup securely.  Little pup wiggled lower part of his body trying to escape.  Just like a two year old, we laughed. But to no avail. After several minutes it gave up and went to sleep.  I guess most all mothers deserve a Mother’s Day!

Mother sea otter grabbing pup for the umteenth time who has swam away from the sleeping area towards shore.