Home > About Sea Otters > About the Southern Sea Otter

Southern Sea Otter (California sea otter, Enhydra lutris nereis)

The sea otter is classified as:

  • Mammalia (class)
  • Carnivora (order)
  • Mustelidae (family)
  • Enhydra (genus)
  • lutris (species)
  • nereis (southern sea otter subspecies)

Otter skeleton sketch based on 1947 illustration

There are 13 varieties of otters with the North American river otter (Lutra canadensis) and the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) being the most common and recognizable freshwater species. The sea otter is the most well known marine otter of the North Pacific. The Eurasian Otter sometimes ventures into the coastal Atlantic, and the Sea Cat is found along the coast of Peru and Chile.

Sea otters were highly valued by Native Americans & Europeans alike for the thick fur. Indigenous populations of native Americans hunted otters, but it wasn't until the arrival of the Russians in the 1700s that sea otters began to be hunted en masse. Sea otter pelts were highly valued throughout the world; their high price led to unsustainable hunting practices that ultimately culminated in the populations' collapse. Sea otters were virtually wiped out in California by the mid 1800s. They did not recieve protection until 1911's International Fur Trade Treaty.

Ladies with sea otter fur mantille; Paul Larisch und Josef Schmid: Das Kürschner-Handwerk, Paris, 1. Jahrgang Nos 3 - 4


Today, due to geographic variation and isolation, the sea otter is divided into three subspecies. The southern sea otter, Enhydra lutris nereis, is also known as the California sea otter.

Scientists estimate that historically the southern sea otter population along the (present day) California coast numbered between 13,000 to 20,000.

By 1830 sea otters were very rare in California. It's believed that the present day population is from a stock of between ten and thirty animals.

In 1938 a group of otters were "discovered" at Bixby Creek on California's rugged Big Sur Coast. Since that time the population growth and range of the population has been closely monitored. Population growth for the southern sea otter has always been slower than that of other sea otter populations such as Alaskan and Washington populations. The theoretical maximum rate of growth for sea otter populations is 17-20% a year. Other populations have averaged a rate of 9% a year. The California sea otter population increased at a rate of 4-5% a year from the early 1900s until the 1970s. (Riedman and Estes, 1990)

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