Get to know the keepers of the kelp forests

Order: Carnivora 

Family: Mustelidae

Genus: Enhydra

Species: E. lutris

Range: Shallow coastal waters, rocky coastlines, thick kelp forests, and barrier reefs of the north Pacific Ocean. Ninety percent of the world’s sea otters can be found in coastal Alaska

Population: About 106,000 worldwide

How to spot them: Soft, dense brown fur, webbed feet, and dark eyes and nose. Can grow up to about 100 lbs. and approximately 5 feet long

IUCN Red List Status: Endangered: At very high risk of extinction in the wild

Sea otters typically spend their entire lives in the water, so it's a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience to see one lounging on dry land.

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Sea otters may just look like cuddly little creatures happily bobbing around the water with a fishy meal on their bellies, but all that cuteness is actually very serious business. Known as a keystone species, sea otters are vital to the health of their kelp forests homes. Kelp helps keep our air clean, it protects our shores from storm surge, and it provides for a variety of marine life. Unfortunately, it’s a favorite food of sea urchins, which decimate the forests leaving underwater wastelands in their wake.

Enter the otters! These eating machines consume up to 25% of their body weight to stay warm in chilly Pacific waters—and they love to snack on sea urchins. That helps keep the populations of these spiny pests in check. In fact, when sea otter populations plummeted in the 1700 and 1800s—they were once hunted almost to extinction for their beautiful pelts—kelp forests suffered greatly. Luckily, sea otter hunting was banned internationally in 1911, and otter populations slowly began to recover.

Today, you’ll find them where kelp forests flourish, floating on their backs and wrapping themselves and their pups in the giant seaweed to anchor in one spot while they eat, groom, or rest. Sometimes rafts of otters, or groups of up to 100, will even link arms or hold paws as they bob together on their backs in the kelp.

Scroll for more facts about this keystone species.