What we can learn from California’s surfing sea otter | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

From the surface, Monterey Bay appears as a tranquil expanse of deep blue stretching from Santa Cruz in the northwest to the city of Monterey in the southeast. But beneath its choppy waves, it is one of the most biodiverse marine environments in the world – often referred to as the Serengeti of the seas. With hundreds of miles of coastline, thickets of swaying 50m (175ft) tall kelp fronds and a hidden underwater chasm that’s up to 3.8km (2.3 miles) deep, the bay is home to many of the largest and most recognisable creatures in the ocean, including seals, sharks, dolphins, and whales.

However, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary also attracts a correspondingly large number of tourists. And the habitats most beloved by visitors just so happen to be those that are inhabited by sea otters. This is the “nearshore”, and it encompasses the shallow water around the coast, with its kelp forests, rocky pools, and estuaries – places where it’s not uncommon to find kayakers, paddleboarders, surfers and divers navigating around the furry bodies of sea otters napping in characteristic style, with their little feet and arms in the air, while floating on their backs.

Since 841’s fame began, the tables have turned, and much of the harassment is now in the other direction. One local photographer, who has been observing the sea otter from nearby cliffs, has reported some of the busiest conditions ever – with people attempting to get close to her every few minutes. The species needs a lot of personal space, and visitors are advised to stay at least 18m (60ft) away, equivalent to around five kayak-lengths. Now some are approaching 841 and others within arm’s reach.

Even before the frenzy of interest in the sea otters at Monterey Bay, Gena Bentall – the director of the conservation charity Sea Otter Savvy – was studying the relationship between the animals and surfers. She told the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper she was “floored” by how much disturbance was going on.

These casual intrusions by humans can have a surprisingly disproportionate impact. The life of a sea otter is naturally energy-intensive, with each adult needing to eat around a fifth of its body weight in seafood each day in order to fuel its fastidious grooming habits, keep its body warm and forage for food. The time when they’re at the surface should be relaxed, and there is little margin for diving away from interfering humans.

In fact, one otter directly affected by this latter phenomenon is 723 – sea otter 841’s own mother. She was stranded as a pup and raised as part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Otter Programme, where she was tended to with extraordinary care by people in Darth Vader-like disguises – a tinted welding helmet and black cape – to avoid her associating humans with anything good, like food.

Like the hundreds of other sea otter pups they have rehabilitated, 723 was brushed until she resembled a tube of fluff with eyes – to emulate the grooming they need to stay waterproof – wrapped in fake kelp, to mimic the way they stay anchored at sea, and taught the behaviours she would need in the wild by an older sea otter, who acted as a surrogate for her lost parent. Then one day, she was released.

“And then, after she had been out in the wild for about nine months, we had multiple observations of people illegally feeding her, and [reports] that being fed had to led her to approaching people on the water – on kayaks, in particular,” says Jess Fujii, the manager of the sea otter programme. Sea otter 723 was taken back into the care of the Monterey Bay Aquarium – where staff discovered she was pregnant. After rearing 841 herself, her daughter was finally released, and the whole cycle began all over again. It’s not clear what initially led to 841’s surfboard-stealing behaviour, but it’s thought that it may have started with people feeding her.

But the consequences of a human presence near where sea otters live doesn’t even require for them to get into the water. In recent decades, many sea otter strandings in California have been linked to Toxoplasma gondii – a parasite known for the strange ways it can alter its hosts’ behaviour, and complex life cycle involving cats. It’s often caught from exposure to cat faeces, and it’s thought sea otters are exposed after periods of heavy rain, when soil – containing the poo from our pets – washes into the ocean. In the past, this has been suggested as one reason for sea otters’ sluggish population growth.

Even in the vastness of Monterey Bay, sea otters can’t escape human activity. However, there is also another threat – a reason they can’t at least expand their range outwards into the ocean, away from the kelp beds, surfers and parasite-riddled runoff. And it comes with 300 teeth.

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