Frequently asked questions about marine mammals

Where can I see sea otters?  What do I look for?
That is possibly the most-asked question that docents get from visitors – and often difficult to answer unless the docent has seen them or been told about them that day since they do not check in to tell us where they are.  But it’s a good way to start your quest.  Otters move from place to place depending on where the food is more plentiful or where the seas are calmer.  One place they can usually be seen is in the waters south of sea lion rocks, where there is often a “raft” of up to 30 otters quite far from shore and not easy to see without a spotting scope.  But they are often seen much closer in coves like Headland Cove, Cypress Cove, and Whalers Cove.  Look for them in kelp beds which contain their food and shelter and listen for the knock, knock, knock of a sea otter using a rock to open a clam or other shelled animal.  Otters are small and dark brown thus difficult to spot in the kelp; look for a white face at the end of a brown “log”.  It is always better to have a pair of binoculars to get a closer look.  If you don’t have your own you can borrow a pair from the Information Station if you are willing to give up your car keys for a while.

How many sea otters are in the reserve?  Why don't their numbers increase?
The central coast otter population is rising slowly but somewhat erratically.  The local population varies widely from less than 20 to nearly 100 as the otters move around the local area to find more abundant food or better shelter from high surf.   Low numbers may also be caused by poor viewing conditions on the day of the count (see next question).

How do you count otters?
The docents do a monthly otter count at Point Lobos using a careful strategy of searching from the coast trails. Otters are counted and their location is noted on a data sheet that is broken into nearshore ocean quadrants.  High-powered spotting scopes are used to confirm far-out sightings and to determine the presence of pups.  The docents who do this are highly skilled through long experience and steadfast attention to detail.  But otter counts are highly influenced by conditions for viewing, such as haze, high seas, and wind.

Do sea otters ever come out of the water?
Not too many years ago people generally thought that otters spend nearly all their time in the water.  Recent investigations have found that the otters in certain areas like nearby Elkhorn Slough haul out on land much more than we realized.  The muddy marsh areas of the slough offer very good protection from land predators and offer them the opportunity to conserve energy by taking a break from the cold waters.  Our docents are reporting a growing number of otters seen on rocks a short distance from land.

Why do sea otters wrap themselves in kelp?
Sea otters have adapted to spending all their time in water if necessary, even when sleeping.  The kelp wrapped over their torsos, being attached to a rock below, ensures that they will wake up in the same place as they dozed off.

There are so many fewer sea lions here than the last time I came.  What has happened to them?
The sea lion population does vary through the year, particularly during the breeding season when the more mature males leave Point Lobos to go to the areas where they breed.

Where do Steller sea lions live?
Steller sea lions, while occasionally seen at Point Lobos, generally live north of the Reserve.  The closest colony is at Ano Nuevo State Park, north of Santa Cruz.  Their range extends up through Alaska and across the northern Pacific rim to Japan.  The greatest concentration of breeding grounds is in Alaskan waters.

What’s the difference between harbor seals and sea lions?
There are actually more differences between these animals than one might imagine.  You can test your knowledge by taking this quiz, or just bypass the quiz and see the answers.  

Do sea lions, harbor seals and sea otters all get along? Do they ever fight or compete for food?
We get that question a lot.  Although seals and sea lions do eat the same kinds of fish, they are not known to fight over it.  Our local southern sea otters do not eat fish but invertebrate animals, so they don’t compete for the fish.  And since all three generally prefer different places to haul out on land, there is rarely need to fight over territory either.

What’s the difference between dolphins and porpoises?
Although they look very much alike, there are quite a few differences between them.  Most of the differences are very difficult to discern from shore, but most people don’t quibble about the differences.  The most likely way for a visitor to tell is by the shape of the dorsal fin – back-curved for dolphins, triangular for porpoises.  The most-frequently cited difference is in the shape of the teeth, but you don’t want to get that close!  Here is a fun website where you can learn more about these animals.

Do whales sleep?
Like many wild animals, whales cannot afford the luxury of long periods of sleep the way we think of it.  For example, gray whales keep up a steady pace 24/7 when migrating past our shores.  They do that by resting only part of the brain at a time.

Do whales spout water?
Not water in a liquid form, but as mist that forms when warm, moist air from the lungs is exhaled into the colder air, much like your breath on a cold winter day. 

Do humpbacks bubble-net here?
We believe that they do, since they are here to feed and that is their main feeding strategy.  See humpback whale page.  Lunge feeding, the last step in the strategy in which the whales surge to the surface with mouths wide open, has been seen from shore.

What is a good way to help kids learn about marine mammals?
The natural beauty of Point Lobos and the awe of seeing the sea mammals in their native habitats can entertain even the most aloof teen and perfectly fascinate their younger siblings.  The Information Station has displays of sea mammal pelts and skulls and a complete skeleton of a sea otter.  Docents are well-informed about all aspects of sea mammal identification and behavior, including habitat, mating, and birth.  Each docent is eager to share knowledge and sensitive to the interest level of every visitor.

Which marine mammals at Point Lobos are listed under the Endangered Species act?
The humpback and blue whales are listed as endangered, due to ocean pollution and collisions with ships.  The gray whale was once listed but has been delisted due to its recovery from the whaling era. The Southern Sea Otter is listed as threatened due to its inability to recover from the fur-hunting era.  The Steller sea lion is also considered threatened due to the high population decline since the 1960’s.

How far will I have to walk to see marine mammals?
The answer to that question depends upon where you park.  But it helps to think of the walk as an opportunity.  Enjoy the beauty around you, and absorb the healing effects of just being out in nature.  The walk may actually seem too short.

I am unable to walk, or walk only with assistance.  Will I be able to see marine mammals at Point Lobos?
Absolutely!  The best trail for seeing them is the ADA-accessible Sea Lion Point Trail.  There are two disabled-person parking spaces at the trailhead.  And the docent at the Information Station can loan you a wheelchair if you didn’t bring one along.