Of sea otters, empathy and the quest for the photo

I've been giving considerable thought to wildlife disturbance issues lately. Not just because I am now tasked with building a program from scratch to mitigate the often relentless harassment of sea otters by marine recreationists, but also because of the unprecedented (in my lifetime, at least) abundance of wildlife inhabiting Monterey Bay of late. It is impossible to cast one's gaze out into the bay from the beaches or jetties of Moss Landing and not see dozens of Humpback Whale blows and, if you're fortunate, a breach or an explosive feeding lunge. It is just as impossible to look upon that amazing scene without the accompanying hoards of watercraft in position court-side to bear witness to the presence of these giants. I get it. I've been one of the hoard. It is like a great and glorious dream to turn your head, mouth agape, and find you are surrounded by some of the largest creatures on earth. I've held out my cell phone to capture video---they are SO CLOSE, I say with a smile.

I have had many conversations with people who have been on the water with the whales, I am curious about their perceptions. The sentiment that the whales are undisturbed by the human accompaniment is nearly universal among them, including my own colleagues, scientists who have long been trained not to trust the superficially apparent at the expense of tested hypotheses. I suggest we at least humble ourselves enough to admit we don't know how the whales are affected when we park ourselves upon their foraging waters. Of course, no one can ask them what they perceive.

In contrast, it's fairly easy to recognize a sea otter whose natural behavior has been disrupted. After just a few minutes of education, most people can recognize the warning behaviors, the behavior of the kayak (or other disturbance source, but kayaks are by far the most typical), and the moment an alert otter becomes a harassed otter. They are not so far removed from us taxonomically, that we are unable to empathize with them and their basic needs to rest, find food and rear their offspring. If it is, in part, my job to encourage people to pay attention when viewing sea otters, then I suspect that is an achievable goal. Love them, yes, but love them with respect.

Perhaps one of my more effective tools to educate others about disturbance is to admit that I have been a perpetrator myself and, if I am honest, I have been so frequently and with species in which disturbance may not be so clear cut. I have always self-identified as respectful of wildlife but, while forging a new collaboration with the Seabird Protection Network, I have had to confess red-faced the number of birds I have flushed. As with most otter disturbances, my infractions were unintentional, but my motives meant nothing to the birds. How many of us have edged closer and closer to get the best photo, with our distance being limited to that at which the bird flies away. I have walked away from this scenario more than once, satisfied with my photo and giving little thought to the number of other similar disturbances that bird has suffered in the past and will suffer after I am gone.

I am a chronic overturner of rocks in the intertidal---this was taught to me as a student of marine biology. We were cautioned to do so with care and to return everything to its place, but my self-congratulations at having done so is often tempered with the suspicion that I have disrupted a complex microcosm that could not be so easily restored. It is much easier for most, however, to empathize with an otter than the anemone. It is probable that I will still look under the occasional tidepool rock, but not without careful weighing of the cost and benefit of doing so. To draw the awareness of people now, to the "death by a 1000 kayaks" faced by sea otters in places like Moss Landing and Morro Bay, has provoked a hyper awareness in me.

I love iNaturalist and I see a tremendous value of the volume of observations documenting species, including the very cryptic ones that go unnoticed if no one is seeking them out. I can't possibly know at what cost to the creature some of those observations have been made. I suspect many iNat users, especially the ones I choose to follow, are more respectful than most with their subjects. But I can only speak for myself---iNat has definitely increased my desire to get that photo voucher and, not only that, but one that shows identifiable characters. Sometimes that can be accomplished at a distance with a telephoto lens and sometimes with a iPhone camera just inches from my subject. Can anyone tell the cost to the butterfly I have flushed repeatedly from its nectar plant? There are so many overwhelming threats to wildlife in our times, the scope of it can leave me feeling powerless. The good news is that I am in control of how far I will go to get that photo. I can take care that I am less a part of the problem and more of a role model. I can choose between the whale watching boat that gets to closest or the one that keeps a respectful distance. I can recognize how much better it feels to leave in my wake wildlife going about their natural business of living. That self control coupled with an increased awareness that my behavior may have a consequence for the wildlife I love, even if I can't know the nature of that consequence, can only make me a better and more respectful naturalist, but a more effective teacher as well.

Posted on September 26, 2015 05:56 PM by gbentall gbentall


Great post. Bird interference has been a problem with some photographers. Some birders have created a list of bird watching ethics guidelines.

Since we have lost 50% of wildlife in just the last 40 years, I worry about further human interaction with wildlife. Especially in the CA drought, where they are struggling for food and water.

As for marine life, there have been a number of hammerhead shark encounters with kayaks in our area recently. In one instance, the kayaker had to repeatedly smack the hammerhead shark to stop it following. Not initially mentioned was the fact that bait was hanging over the edge of the kayak, which obviously interested the shark. That is not smart kayaking, either for the person or the shark.

As for butterflies, the most effective method I have found is to remain completely still, and the butterflies do not "see" you and are not interrupted by your presence. I discovered this by accident, when photographing flowers after giving up on a butterfly I was trying to photograph, when it suddenly landed on the flower I was photographing instead. I was motionless as I was focusing, and probably looked no different than a tall plant.

Good luck in your new task - it seems of great value to the best interests of marine life.

Posted by lynnwatson over 8 years ago

Interesting issue, Gena!

I think education is the best bet. It's a tricky balance: interacting with wildlife makes people care about wildlife in deeper, more profound ways than not. In that sense, one would say that we should encourage this curiosity. But it certainly gets out of control, and usually when commercial interests get involved. I imagine that the whale-watching boats are pitching that they get closest (as you say), and the kayak rental shop tells potential clients they can get closer to otters and other wildlife than with a motor.

Seems like these businesses are your potential allies in any education program, if you can convince them they have to change their ways or face regulation. Fortunately (I guess) Monterrey Bay saw the collapse of a fishing industry that wouldn't step up, so there is a precedent, rather than an abstract worry.

Posted by faerthen over 8 years ago

Thank you for your conscience raising words!

Posted by torres-grant over 8 years ago

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