Just as parents often teach their children to swim, so does the sea otter’s mother prepare her baby for life in the water.
Many years ago, sea otters used to visit the shores of the North Pacific for food, rest, and play, but they became almost extinct because men wanted their valuable fur. In order to survive, they took to the kelp beds of the northern Pacific Ocean. There they live practically undisturbed, and they visit the land only occasionally. Now their chief enemy is the killer whale.
A sea otter is usually a darkish brown, almost the color of a water-soaked log. Killer whales often travel together, causing the water to swell. When sea otters feel the waves, they stay so silent and still that they look like logs that have been in the water for a long time.
Often a hundred or more sea otters make their home in a single kelp bed. These kelp beds are like little islands made of rubbery seaweeds. Kelp is a seaweed of the brown alga family, the largest of all algae. The giant kelps of the Pacific Ocean are often more than one hundred feet in length. On top of the bed, just under the water, the kelp spreads out its leaves just as a land tree does.
The sea otters have an odd way of sleeping in these kelp beds. The mother lies on her back in the kelp and cradles the baby otter on the top of her chest. She tightens her arms—her front legs are often called arms—around the baby. Then both of them roll over and over again until they are securely wrapped in the strands of kelp. This prevents them from drifting away while they are sleeping.
The mother often goes fishing for shellfish at the bottom of the ocean. When she brings up a shell, she always brings up a rock too. She then lies on her back, puts the rock on her chest, and hits the shellfish on the rock again and again until the shell is broken. Taking a piece in her hands, she eats what is within the shell.
Sea otters are not only clever animals, but many people think they are pretty, too. They have broad webbed feet, a wide flat head, small eyes and ears, and thick whiskers.
A mother sea otter teaches her baby, called a pup, everything. She must teach him how to swim, because even though he is born in the kelp beds surrounded by water, the sea otter is not a natural swimmer. Sometimes he can float quite well, but swimming is another matter. A mother puts her pup’s face down in the water, then swims a short distance away from him. He tries to follow her but cannot go forward even an inch, so he begins to make a crying sound.
She always returns to her baby, swims around him, then draws away. In a gentle voice she urges him to follow her. He tries, fails, and cries. Over and over again, for days and days, she helps him until at last he can haltingly swim after her. But he cannot dive, so this is another thing he must be taught.
A pup cannot seem to get the idea that when he dives he should stay down and forage for food around the kelp roots at the bottom of the ocean. When he dives he immediately pops up to the surface again. But as he grows stronger, and with much patience, he finally can swim and dive too. Then he follows his mother everywhere, searching for food and playing.
Sea otters are playful animals, tumbling and splashing in and out among the seaweeds. They float on their backs, carried by the tide, to nearby kelp beds that shelter other sea otters. They visit for a while, but when night begins to darken the sky, they hasten back to their homes. Tucked safely in the kelp, they soon fall asleep, cradled by the waves.