In the narrowed channel, slack tide, a mat of kelp, or weed, or salt grass floats along the surface without a notion of its own, captured by the absent-minded tug and turn of eddies between the bars. It drifts, closer. Then, further. Catching in a spiral of water turning, turning, and… Recognition!
The baby is newborn, maybe a week, maybe two. Round and wet and unable to fend for himself. Cannot care for himself. His mother washing scrubbing rubbing combing every inch of him. And when she finishes one end, working from the long spiky fur of his tail, she turns him on the Lazy Susan of her belly and starts all over the opposite way, from his sweet wet face on down. He opens his eyes. He has a sleepy look. She props him up on the water and dives, and comes back with a clam she breaks open and divides but does not share with him.
Then sea clam will be food to him, the taste he will follow all his life. When he is older and stronger and heavy enough to dive he will learn to follow her down and down to the cloudy bottom, and recognize the shapes and smells and take a stone and crack the shell. There will be a lot to learn. He is lucky. She will as mother otters do take the time to teach him.
As much and as long as he needs.
On a bare branch overhanging the shore, one Anna’s hummingbird is watching Mother and Son Sea Otter. From the sand bar, 50 willets, 22 godwits, one off-course Caspian tern and 14 white-plumed snowy egrets are watching Mother and Son Sea Otter. An over-flight of curious brown pelicans, their faces painted the russet-red and yellow of breeding season look down, on Mother and Son Sea Otter. On the muddy bank, one newborn seal and her mother arch their backs, one like the other, feeling as close together as Mother and Son Sea Otter. And in my blue kayak, paddling in place - me too – here I am smiling at Mother and Son sea Otter, all of us animals living and learning and trying to get by.
Sea otters spend a significant percentage of their day grooming. A matter of survival. Their hair is incredibly thick (estimated at 1,000,000 follicles per square inch) though it is not density alone that gives it warmth. Those hairs trap air and it is the large number of isolated air pockets that create insulation value (R-factor). But in order for the mechanism to function all that hair has to be kept clean. Dirty hair sticks and clumps and looses its captured air. Cleaning must be both meticulous and constant, and the technique has to be learned. The pup in this story who was only days old was already making his first attempt at grooming, using his little paws to rub his face.
One part of his transition to independence will be in the ability to handle his own hygiene. Another is being able to feed himself in the frigid kelp beds and the warm lazy tributaries of Monterey Bay.
After a mother sea otter starts to offer her pup solid food he will try to follow her lead. She dives, he dives but cannot follow. These attempts begin when the baby is still too light and buoyant to force his way down, the result of that insulating air in their coat. The babies pop up like corks. Trapped on the surface and unable to follow their mothers they call out, “Mom! Mom!” That is exactly what it sounds like, “Mom! Mom! Mom!” As if they fear that she has left them. Or lost them. Or that they have lost her. In another year or so, they will. Loose her.
Mark Seth Lender’s fieldwork and travel are arranged exclusively through Destination: Wildlife TM. If you would like to visit the places Mark has been, you can contact them at www.DestinationWildlfe.com. Mark is the author of the illustrated children’s book, Smeagull the Seagull, A True Story, www.Smeagull.com