National Geographic : 1971 Oct
stepped out onto spongy sphagnum moss. A hundred yards away, a dozen otters fed in a kelp bed. A mother floating on her back pro pelled herself toward us with her hind feet. A pup slept on her chest (page 536). "When I see a mother and sleeping pup gliding along on a calm sea," Elmer reflected, "it looks for all the world to me like a loaf of bread aboard a tiny stern-wheeler." Farther on we came upon a dead otter, lying in a sleeping position on a grassy bank. A youngster, it weighed no more than 20 pounds, a third of an adult's full growth. We saw no wounds, but it seemed terribly emaciated. Soon we found four more. "What do you think is killing them?" Elmer asked. We had no answer, and no immediate hope of finding one. Federal policy, intent on protecting wild life, prohibited collecting otters, dead or alive, even for biological studies. Science Joins Fight to Save the Otter Despite these scattered deaths, the otter population slowly increased. By 1951 govern ment policy had changed, and Aleutian ref uge manager Robert D. Jones, Jr., captured 35 animals to transplant to parts of their former habitat. Tragically, each died within a few days of capture. Subsequent attempts in 1954 and 1955 proved equally unsuccessful. Otters, obviously, adapted poorly to captivity. With Tony Bezezekoff's aid, I began study ing otters in July 1955. Tony had herded sheep on Umnak Island before joining me. "Those sheep were so stupid," he remarked one day, "that I got tired of taking care of them. They went out on rocks at low tide to eat kelp, and didn't know enough to come back at high tide. So some drowned. That's why I decided to work with smarter animals." I loaded supplies aboard a chartered hali but schooner, the Paragon,in Seattle. Picking up Tony at Nikolski on Umnak Island, I charted a course for the then-deserted na tional wildlife refuge island of Amchitka. Susie's capture occurred about a month after our arrival. Though she settled down quickly, she declined to eat when we were near. Tony accepted this as a personal chal lenge. Just two days later, he proudly an nounced, "She's eating out of my hand." After studying other otters, we learned that the animals would tame very quickly, and even take fish from our hands if we placed them in a pool within minutes of capture. One wild otter that we hand-fed soon was following us around-standing on its hind 528 legs, forepaws pressed against us, beady eyes searching our faces in an open plea for food. The begging otter demonstrated an inter esting trait: No matter how far from the water we fed it, up to a hundred feet, the otter never consumed a morsel on land. Clasping the food tightly to its chest with its left foreleg, the animal would hump its way to the water on three feet. Then, floating on its back, it would dine at leisure. Susie helped us understand why otters pre fer water to land. We kept her in a cage with excelsior for bedding, and a month later I transported her to Seattle. Ed Johnson, direc tor of Woodland Park Zoo, put Susie into a pool there. To our shock, her fur soaked up water like a sponge, and she sank! Scraps of food and excelsior had pene trated her delicate fur, destroying the water proofing blanket of air. She tried floating on her back, but only constant swimming kept her head above water. She turned nearly rigid with cold. Ed and I pulled her from the water and hurriedly gave her a warm bath in a heated room. Then we dried her with towels. For several hours each day, we washed and EKTACHROMES BYJAMESA. MATTISON,JR., M.D. (ABOVE) ANDBATESLITTLEHALES © N.G.S. Floating on its back, a California sea otter (above) scoops the flesh from an abalone, one of its favorite foods. In char acteristic fashion, the otter broke the creature's tenacious grip on an underwater rock by smashing the shell with a stone. Sea otters haul food to the surface both with their sensitive prehensile forepaws and on their chest in a pouchlike fold of skin looser than a hound dog's. A success ful hunter (right) comes up clasping a big abalone.