Rare and friendly sea otter spotted in waters off Saanich

A rare and entertaining sea otter spotted along the shores of Saanich this week has locals thrilled, but wildlife experts warn to keep your distance.

“It’s very exciting. I saw him get a sea urchin and big crab. He’s just hanging out in a kelp bed out there,” said Cheryl Alexander as she watched the sea otter in waters of Haro Strait in front of her Ten Mile Point home Friday. “We’re really into wildlife and we’ve seen seals, sea lions, herons and the occasional orca out here. But in 13 years, this is the first sea otter.”

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While small, sleek river otters (marked by a rat-like tail) are common in Victoria harbours, sea otters are not, according to experts from the Capital Regional District and Vancouver Aquarium. They are also larger, about 45 kilograms, and known to float on their backs in groups.

Sea otters were hunted to the brink of extinction in the late 1800s for their thick, valuable furs and were listed as an endangered species until 2007. Some populations have been restored in Haida Gwaii and on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, but they are still noted as a species of concern.

Alexander said she hopes the sea otter sighting is a sign of their return to the Salish Sea.

“Our family has nicknamed him Salish,” Alexander said of their visitor.

Allan Crow couldn’t believe what he was seeing when he watched a YouTube video that shows a sea otter at Cadboro Bay on Aug. 10 swimming and playing between the legs of a man standing in the water.

“I’ve been a fisherman and a diver on southern Vancouver Island for 35 years, and I’ve never seen one here,” said Crow. The video, posted by visiting former Victorian Allison Moore, had more than 17,000 hits Friday.

“I had a hard time accepting what I was seeing, but that’s a sea otter. The currents are quick there, so it must have been separated from others.”

A few sea otters have been spotted near Sooke during the past few years, including an emaciated and injured one rescued in February and taken to the Vancouver Aquarium. Whiffen, named after Whiffen Spit where he was found, died from his injuries in May. In October, the aquarium rescued another sea otter near Tofino that had been shot in the face.

“It is very important that people maintain a distance from marine mammals and back away if they approach you. This will encourage the sea otter to continue its natural activities,” said Tessa Danelesko, the co-ordinator of the B.C. cetacean sightings network at the Vancouver Aquarium.

“It’s a concern to see a sea otter get so close. They are typically very shy with boaters and people because of harvesting dangers,” said Danelesko, adding marine mammal guidelines suggest keeping a distance of 100 metres. The Fisheries Act prohibits the disturbance of marine mammals and carries fines up to $100,000.

“It’s dangerous for people and for the otters. If it becomes a nuisance, fisheries could be forced to relocate it or kill it,” she said, adding anyone who spots a sea otter can report it to the federal fisheries department, which monitors the populations.

As for the Saanich otter getting so much attention, she’s not too worried.

“It’s not unusual for males to travel alone in places where they might not be typically seen,” Danelesko said, noting the otter is more likely to find its way back to a group without human distraction.

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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