• Captain Neil McDermott

How Nuclear Bomb Testing Brought Otters To Sitka

The Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) is the most smile evoking animals we are lucky to see on all our tours. Some of our guests even want a tour specifically focusing on these remarkable creatures. These balls of fur when carrying a pup on her belly constantly grooming the baby are an adorable sight.

Otters can walk on land, but most of them spend their entire life in the water. So how do these relatively small mammals, (avg Males = 80 LBS) keep warm? Sea Otters have no blubber or fat layer, so their extremely high metabolism and impenetrable fur is what keeps them warm from the icy waters of Sitka Sound. Their fur is the densest fur in the animal kingdom. It is said, the amount of fur on 1 sq. inch of these animals is equivalent to the amount of hair on an entire German Shepard. With up to 1 million hairs in that 1sq. inch there are two distinct layers. The outer layer with longer hairs serves to wick the water away and the inner layer is downy in appearance and provides separation of the cold waters from their bodies. That beautiful warm fur however was the Otters, “Achilles heel” that nearly led to their extinction. The fur of these animals was highly prized and as has often happened in history, man’s greed took over and wiped out all the Sea Otters in our area by 1870.

Luckily in the 1960’s there was an estimated 3,000 otters remaining in Alaska who thrived around the Aleutian Islands. The cold war raged at this time and nuclear proliferation impacted the one remaining home to Otters in Alaska. The US built an underground nuclear testing facility on Amchitka Island, (a medium sized island about halfway down the Aleutian chain). Environmental impact studies were non-existent at that time and fortunately one scientist did voice concerns about the welfare of the Otters near Amchitka.

A shrewd colonel in the army had the forethought to express the scientists concern to his superiors. Arguing that the army would obtain bad press when these cute animals started washing up on shores as a result of the testing. Thankfully, these efforts prevailed, and in 1968 the State of Alaska, US Department of Interior, and the Atomic Energy Commission joined forces and over the course of 2 years relocated 359 otters to 3 locations in SE Alaska including Khaz Bay near Sitka.

Without Otters in the region, the ecosystem was out of balance. The Otters diet consists of shellfish, octopus and their favorite food is the Sea Urchin. Urchins get their nourishment from Kelp, chewing through the stalk near sea bottom. Unhindered by Otters the kelp beds were destroyed. Otters are voracious eaters who consume up to 25% of their body weight per day.

With the repositioned Otters enjoying their desired food the kelp beds flourished helping it remain productive and dynamic. By providing protection for fry and other young animals, as well as a surface on which herring can lay eggs, the Kelp forest is essential to ensuring the food chain remains intact for all the seas creatures including the much beloved Otters as well as their co-mammalian titans the whales.

So in spite of everything, some good did come out of nuclear bomb testing after all.

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A Whale's Song Expeditions

Sitka, Alaska

"Our vessel adheres to the Alaska Humpback Whale Approach regulations and does not intentionally approach whales within 100 yards"