It’s a gloomy, gray July morning when I hop from the pier at Gaviota State Beach to board the tiny research vessel that’s been following sea otters as they swim south of Point Conception and take up residence in the Santa Barbara Channel for the first time in centuries. But by the time the steady static of the telemetry receiver is interrupted by rhythmic, telltale blips indicating our first radio-collared otter of the day, the skies are positively pea-soupy, dark swatches of bobbing seaweed the only demarcation between ocean and air.
“See those black specks out there?” asks Nicole LaRoche, a Chicago-raised UC Santa Cruz grad who studies otters for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and sells her marine wildlife photographs at S.B.’s Sunday beach show. “Those are otters.”
As LaRoche pulls out handheld computers to record the otters, their locations, and, if visible, what they’re doing, I peer deeper into the mist as we skip through the sea somewhere off Cojo Anchorage, but the raft of furry beasts quickly disappears. “Oh, we spooked them all,” says LaRoche, who began following these otters in the spring of 2012 and will repeat this routine at least eight days a month until her study is done in March 2015. “We didn’t even slow down. They spook so easily.” As we steadily meander back toward Gaviota, the weather clears up a bit, but the otter spotting — complicated by the presence of harbor seals, thick clumps of kelp, and other look-alikes known in the tracking trade as “notters” — doesn’t get much easier, with some individuals identified only when they dive underwater and their beeping stops.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but, after a couple of months of chatting with scientists, fishermen, and others whose pasts, presents, and futures are intertwined with the fate of this mercurial marine mammal, such fleeting discoveries and sudden vanishings amid barely navigable fog perfectly mirror the four decades of work and worry involved in bringing the species back from the brink of extinction. Despite countless studies, millions of dollars, odd regulations, and lots of lawsuits, the otter population — which was declared “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1977 — is not rebounding anywhere near as fast as was once hoped.