Marine mammals are a special sight along Olympic National Park's coastal strip. Whales and dolphins are occasionally seen, but harbor seals and sea otters, the smallest marine mammal, are fairly common.
Sea otters have some of the softest fur in the world. Their hairs are packed very densely, making great insulation. This thick, warm coat replaces the layer of blubber that other marine mammals depend on to ward off the chill of our 40-50 degree water. But this lush coat also made its wearer vulnerable to the voracious apppetite of fur trappers from all over the globe. By 1911, close to one million had been killed from Alaska to California. A law was passed making hunting sea otters illegal, but by that time the hunt had stopped because otters were so hard to find. They were gone from the waters off Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, and only a tiny group survived in California.
In 1969 and 1970, sea otters from Alaska were re-introduced to sites along the northwest Pacific coast.
Approximately 800 now live off Washington. You might spot them from overlooks in Olympic National Park. Scan the offshore kelp forests for otters entwined in the fronds, their furry rounded heads camouflaged among the bobbing kelp floats. Sea otters depend on large marine algae like bull and giant kelp. Kelp forests not only help protect the coast by absorbing the power of waves, they are also breeding grounds and nurseries for many creatures, including sea urchins, the otters' main food. Studies show that otters help maintain a balance between kelp and urchin populations. Without their top predator, urchins multiply and devour the kelp.
Sea otters are cute and playful—they capture our hearts since they seem so human in their habits. By preserving the ocean otters live in, we also protect animals that are not so cute, but every bit as important to their ecosystem. Fish, birds, seastars, barnacles, and countless other creatures benefit from the sea otter's rebound.