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Sea otter spotted off Laguna Beach in unusual sighting

December 8, 2011 |  5:21 pm

Sea otter laguna beach
Spend enough time on a boat in Southern California and you'll see your fill of sea lions, dolphins and even the occasional whale.

But a group of whale watchers this week were treated to a less common sight, crossing paths with a sea otter off the coast of Laguna Beach.

The Dana Pride was on a whale watching excursion Monday afternoon when the crew spotted one of the furry marine mammals lingering just outside some kelp a quarter-mile offshore.

"His head came up and they said, 'Wow that's a sea otter' and it just came up and watched our boat," said  Donna Kalez, general manager of Dana Wharf Sportfishing. "We haven't  seen one around here for 30-plus years, so it was super exciting for us."

Otters may be few and far between in Southern California waters but they're not unheard of. A group of birders in October spotted a lone otter hanging out in a kelp bed at the outlet of San Diego Bay.

Experts said both otters were probably solo males roving far beyond the boundaries of the threatened species' established range along California's Central Coast.

As many as 16,000 southern sea otters once inhabited the waters from Oregon to Baja California, but they were hunted nearly to extinction by the early 1900s. In 1977 they were protected under the Endangered Species Act and have made a slow recovery, with a population that now hovers around 2,800 in California.

Though female otters are only found as far south as Point Conception, males are capable of making exploratory swims up to 200 miles beyond their Central Coast range, said Tim Tinker, research biologist with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center.

Tinker, who reviewed the photo of the otter off Laguna Beach and confirmed it was an adult male, said in recent years male otters have been seen once or twice a year as  far south as Los Angeles, San Diego or even Baja California and the sightings are "neither super common nor terribly uncommon."

"What's driving them to swim that far away, we don't really know," he said. "It seems to be one of those innate behaviors that male sea otters have to explore."

Officially, sea otter have been barred from waters south of Point Conception for nearly 25 years under a failed attempt establish a new southern population on San Nicolas Island. A plan released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in August would end the relocation program and let otters expand into their historic Southern California range.

If the species' gradual recovery continues, otters could start to make more frequent appearances in Southern California as the pioneering males lead the charge into unoccupied territory.

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--Tony Barboza

Photo: A sea otter spotted Monday off Laguna Beach. Credit: Tom Monroe / Dana Wharf Sportfishing

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