Otter 501 meanders through the tidal creeks near Yampah Island in Elkhorn Slough with a dozing pup on her chest. She massages the pup’s rump and blows air into its fur as she makes her way toward a main channel to feed.
To an observer, 501 might look like any other sea otter going about her business. But she’s thriving in the wild today because of a rather remarkable program at Monterey Bay Aquarium.
According to surprising new research, the same can be said of the majority of Elkhorn Slough’s otters.
Many ocean animals are masters of stealth and disguise. The ability to run away and hide is invaluable when you live in a world full of watchful, nimble predators. Unfortunately for friendly scientists, some critters’ skittish demeanor can get in the way of research. In response, our dive team is employing its own stealth technology: the rebreather.
Rebreathers allow divers to breathe in and out in a closed-circuit loop. Breathable air comes in through one side of the dive mask, while carbon dioxide-rich exhaled air leaves through another to be scrubbed and recycled. Along with enabling longer, deeper dives, rebreathers have another huge advantage: They’re bubble-free.
When scuba divers swim into the depths of the ocean, they breathe air through a hose attached to a tank. When they exhale, a steady stream of bubbles floats to the surface. These bubbles – an unusual feature in the ocean landscape – can cause wary ocean animals to dart into their hiding spots, evading researchers who are trying to observe them.
With rebreathers, divers can be much stealthier. They’re able to swim closer to animals without disturbing their daily routines.
“You can get up close and see some animal behaviors you may have never seen before,” said George Z. Peterson, director of dive programs at the aquarium.
Some of our divers have been using rebreathers since 2007, mostly to aid with sea otter captures that are part of our collaborative research to tag and track otters in the wild. But George is excited about the technology’s potential use with other research and husbandry projects.
For scientists, rebreathers may offer a more accurate glimpse into a day in the life of a rockfish or a crab. It may also allow for more accurate counts of animal populations in the wild. Our Conservation Research team thinks rebreathers may allow for easier observation of extremely mobile animals like seals.
Many observational studies of underwater animals are carried out using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). While these machines aren’t very obtrusive to the animals, they’re still cumbersome to operate. In contrast, skilled divers are quite agile in the water.
George said our Husbandry staff is excited about using rebreathers to observe animal behavior in the wild so that they can better recreate their environments in our exhibits. When exhibits are more hospitable, the animals are healthier.
Since rebreathers also allow divers to go deeper than they could using traditional scuba gear, our team may get some up-close and personal views of animals only seen by scientists using ROVs. It’s possible, though unlikely, that the stealth technology will even allow divers to observe some animals for the first time.
“It’s a really neat way to observe animals in their natural habitat,” George said. He’s looking forward to even more bubble-free diving in the near future.
Michelle Staedler stands atop a hill above Elkhorn Slough. It’s low tide – low enough to see the green eelgrass just under the surface of the water. Michelle peers through a spotting scope with a directional radio antenna attached. Static hums on the radio until it’s broken by a quiet blip…blip…blip coming from a radio tag inside the abdomen of a sea otter. Michelle records the time and notes that the otter she’s been watching for the last fifteen minutes, 501, has come up with a clam that she shares with her pup, floating by her side.
Michelle is recording foraging data on Otter 501, perhaps the most famous sea otter in the history of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s otter surrogacy program. Rescued as a pup by the Aquarium and raised in captivity, she was successfully released in 2011 into Elkhorn Slough, a major estuary system in Moss Landing that feeds into Monterey Bay. Otter 501 has gone on to raise several pups of her own in the slough, where many of her species have come to flourish.
Michelle and her collaborators at the U.S. Geological Survey and the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve have been counting otters in the slough since September 2013 as part of a population monitoring project. She has conducted several research projects on sea otter behavior since she began working with the Aquarium nearly 30 years ago. Her work focuses on sea otter mothers, their pups and how they feed. Foraging data gathered in the slough has proven particularly useful to ecological research.
Sea otters are a keystone species – central to the overall health of ecosystems of which they’re a part. Like other top ocean predators, their presence helps maintain a diverse community of animals and plants. The web can unravel if otter numbers dwindle. That’s exactly what happened when they were hunted to near-extinction by fur traders in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In kelp forests, otters eat sea urchins and other grazing animals, keeping them from devouring the kelp. This allows the productive ecosystem to thrive.
Using several data sets, including Michelle’s extensive foraging data, researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz discovered that otters play an equally important role in the slough.
As the story goes, before the otter population bounced back in the mid-1980s, eelgrass beds in the slough were being smothered by algae that grew unchecked on the leaves, absorbing the sunlight eelgrass needed for photosynthesis. In a healthy ecosystem, snails, slugs and other invertebrates would eat the film of algae, cleaning the grass and allowing it to get the sunlight it needs. But those grazers were being devoured by crabs, which had few natural predators in the slough – that is until sea otters turned up and began gobbling up the crabs.
Brent Hughes, who led the UC Santa Cruz research team, said he couldn’t have cinched his conclusion without the help of Michelle’s data.
“In the slough, we have unprecedented coverage of what a top predator is doing in terms of the ecology of a system, the behavior, exploitation of resources and habitat use,” Brent said. “It’s pretty much unprecedented in the marine ecology world, and that’s because of all the work that Michelle and [Brent’s collaborator] Tim Tinker have been doing.”
It’s important that she and her colleagues continue to monitor the otters, as well.
“We’re looking at the population of otters here,” Michelle explained. “How many are here, what areas of the slough they use, how they take advantage of micro habitats.”
For example, she said, a pioneer population of about 20 sea otters used to live around the jetty system in Moss Landing Harbor, at the mouth of the slough. Over time, their numbers ballooned to over 100 animals, and she’s observed them moving farther and farther up into the slough. Because of the significant restorative impact the otters can have on the ecosystem, it’s critical for researchers keep an eye on them to see what happens if their numbers continue to grow, Brent said.
Hughes B.B., Eby R., Van Dyke E., Tinker, M.T., Marks, C.I., Johnson, K.S., Wasson K. (2013). “Recovery of a top predator mediates negative eutrophic effects on seagrass.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110(38). 15313–15318, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1302805110