PORT ANGELES — A whale watching company has reported an increase in sea otter sightings in inland waters this year, including one that was seen last Sunday near the mouth of the Elwha River.
Island Adventures Whale Watching officials said there have been three confirmed sea otters sightings in the Salish Sea this year: one on the south end of San Juan Island, one at Race Rocks near Victoria and one west of Port Angeles.
Most sea otters are spotted off the Pacific Coast at places like Destruction Island and Cape Flattery, said Erin Gless, a naturalist with Island Adventures Whale Watching.
“A few individuals, however, seem to be exploring more inland waters,” Gless said in a Monday news release.
“While it’s too early to determine what’s bringing these sea otters in from the coast, their presence is encouraging.”
In 2016, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife aerial survey found a raft of 687 sea otters off Hoh Head near the mouth of the Hoh River.
A survey count in June 2017 found 2,058 sea otters in Washington, according to state and federal scientists.
“Almost all were found on the outer coast, and sightings included a persistent ‘raft’ of over 600 otters floating together each day,” said Jenny Waddell, research coordinator with the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, on Wednesday.
Sea otters were driven to near extinction by fur traders between 1740 and 1900, Gless said.
Thanks to conservation efforts, sea otter populations in Washington have rebounded.
The sea otter at Race Rocks, a male named Ollie, was first seen by whale watching crews in 2015, Gless said in a Wednesday interview.
Ollie the Otter has gained such a following that he has his own Facebook page, Gless said.
“He’s been here a couple years, and we just assumed he was the only one in the area,” Gless said.
Last month, a sea otter with an injured left eye was seen living near the south end of San Juan Island.
“After multiple sightings, naturalist Sara Hysong-Shimazu of Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching in Friday Harbor felt the newcomer deserved a nickname,” Gless said.
“She decided on ‘Odin’ after the Norse god who, according to mythology, sacrificed his eye in exchange for wisdom.”
The Elwha River otter was spotted more than a mile offshore by members of an Island Adventures Whale Watching cruise that left Port Angeles on Sunday. The otter is believed to be a female.
“It’s kind of a needle in a haystack,” Gless said of the sighting.
River otters, which are more slender and have long tails, are often seen from the beaches of the Salish Sea, Gless said.
“Sea otters are more rare and spend much of their time at sea,” Gless said.
“They are often seen floating on their backs enjoying a shellfish meal or catching some shuteye.”
Anne Shaffer, executive director of the Coastal Watershed Institute, which studies the ecology of the nearshore near the mouth of the Elwha River, said the recent sea otter sighting was interesting but not unusual.
“There are otters that are off our shore, off the central Strait, one or two a year,” Shaffer said Friday.
A semi-resident sea otter was known to be living off the San Juan Islands for years. An adult male was living in the south Puget Sound, Shaffer said.
“There certainly transit our shoreline but they’re not abundant,” Shaffer said.
“It’s an interesting observation but not necessarily ecologically astounding. But they’re cool animals.”
Island Adventures offers whale watching cruses from Port Angeles, La Conner and its headquarters in Anacortes.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected] news.com.