National Geographic : 1971 Oct
dried her fur. After ten days, we returned her to the pool. She floated happily on her back. There was good reason, obviously, why otters in the wild begin and end each meal or sleep with a thorough grooming. Good Grooming Keeps Otters Warm Since she had no worries about obtaining food, Susie had plenty of free time and de voted nearly half her daylight hours to preen ing. A wild otter, though more occupied with finding food, nevertheless spends at least a tenth of its time tending its fur. Vanity plays no role in the preening. Because its body lacks the blubber layer found in all other marine mammals, the sea otter relies for warmth as well as buoyancy on the air trapped in the estimated 800 million fine fur fibers of its coat. Paradoxically, the pelage remains water proof only when it's regularly kept in water. The experience with Susie taught me a les son. When I returned to Amchitka, I asked Tony's cousin, Fred Bezezekoff, a carpenter, to build an otter pool, two feet deep and six feet by eight on the sides. While Tony and Fred salvaged lumber from abandoned mili tary supplies, I spent days in a cliff-edge blind on Kirilof Point. Gusty blasts of as much as 70 to 80 miles an hour shrieked around me, but the tiny blind held firm. Calm days, though, proved best for otter-watching. The animals fed just below me in a small kelp patch. Through my telescope I saw otters feeding, diving, sleeping, and mating. One dived no fewer than six times in 14 minutes, staying underwater from 42 to 80 seconds on each descent. When it emerged, it ate ravenously, mostly sea urchins carried to the surface under a foreleg. One morning I watched a female otter float ing on her back. A young animal lay at right angles to her, its head on her chest. Both were sleeping. The mother awoke and began to Enticed by a sea urchin, an otter off Monterey, California, clings to the arm of diver Ron Church. Oceanographer Jacques 532 Cousteau developed the Monte rey otters' trust in man by hand feeding them (opposite) during filming of a 1971 television KODACHROME BYJOYCECHURCH(9 N.G.S . documentary. The otters' appe tite for kelp-eating urchins pre serves the seaweed forest and its community of other creatures.