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Photos: Rare-ish sighting of a sea otter in Squamish

Male spotted in Howe Sound likely travelled from its Vancouver Island home base, says researcher.

He isn't your typical Sea to Sky tourist. 

A sea otter was recently spotted visiting Howe Sound. 

While river otters are a common sight in these parts, a sea otter is not. 

It is likely a young male who wandered in search of food, something the marine mammals sometimes do. 

"The sea otter population has established its range on the west coast of Vancouver Island, but we get individual animals like this that sort of wander off into other areas. We call these extra liminal sightings. So it's not uncommon in that regard,” Fisheries and Oceans research biologist Linda Nichol, who studies sea otters and cetaceans in the Pacific region, says. 

"He's probably just wandering off looking for somewhere to have a good feed. And then, one day, he'll wander back to where the most of the population is, which will be out on the west coast of Vancouver Island."

From pictures sent to her by Squamish photographer Brian Aikens, she suspects it is a male due to the presence of a penile ridge.

Nichol said there are also sea otters established off the northwest coast of Washington State. So it's even remotely possible that he's come from there.

Not usually loners

She said sea otters are pretty gregarious, like to spend time in a group, and they have relatively small home ranges, ironically. 

"These are individuals that will probably make a foray like this in their life — I don't know how many times — but will actually spend most of their life in a relatively small area," she said. 

They usually rest in groups of the same sex. So males rest with males and females and their pups together.

This fellow is likely feeding on shellfish, Nichol said. 

Since Aikens last spotted the animal, it has seemingly moved on. 

Nichol said she recently had a sea otter spotting at Gibbons, which may be the same individual.

"We'll probably have other similar sightings, and then maybe this individual will move on somewhere else and not be seen for a number of years," she said. 

"I keep a database of all the incidental sightings so that everybody knows their sightings are recorded. I'm very interested to know where these incidental or extra little animals are going."

At one time, the sea otter was completely erased from B.C., but 89 otters were re-introduced about 40 years ago. 

There are now approximately 8,000, according to Nichol.

Seeing this sea otter in Squamish is likely a reflection of the recovery of the sea otter population, said Nichol. 

Other facts you 'otter' know

Otters can breed year-round. 

The females have one pup at a time. 

"And she cares for that pup for six to eight months — carrying it around very carefully with her everywhere." 

Nichol said it is important folks don't harass otters if they see them. 

Unlike the smaller river otter, the sea otter spends all its time in the water. 

"When it's foraging, it'll be lying on its back, eating whatever it's brought to the surface, then it'll rise up, look around and do a dive straight down and go back and look for some other food."

Sea otters also spend a lot of time grooming themselves on the water's surface.

"They've got to keep their fur super clean because that's what's keeping them warm — is it's incredibly dense," she said. "Life is probably about sleeping and snoozing, grooming and foraging."

While the river otter is usually about 30 pounds, the sea otter is the weight and size of a Labrador retriever, only with super short legs — so about 70 to 80 pounds, Nichol said. 

There isn't much that preys on a full-grown otter in the wild. Pups can be vulnerable to eagles, however. 

And males often get into scraps with each other.

Because the otter spotted in Squamish doesn't have a lot of visible scrapes, Nichol assumes it is young. 

Male otters live about 15 years, females about 20 years. 

Video by Chris Dale

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