On a day of cozy coastal grays — soft cloud cover, a silver foil-wrap sea — a dozen gray fur balls brought visitors the most comfort.
Bobbing 20 feet from a harbor walkway, the sea otters were part of a record number in California. They once were believed to be as extinct as the dodo bird or the Tyrannosaurus rex.
But there they were, a raft of otters drifting by a line of tourists.
Several pups rested their heads on their mothers. The biggest otter cracked a clam on a flat rock balanced on her chest. They lounged belly-up and, with a thump of their paws, rotated like rolling pins.
“I feel so lucky,” said Erica Baumsteiger, a San Francisco pediatric nurse. “Seeing them is serendipity in such a lovely way.”
Martin Beijst, from the Netherlands, broke a stare-off with a bright-eyed pup. “Who is watching who?” he asked his wife, Charlotte, in Dutch.
In May, the annual otter count found more than 3,090 along the California coast. They are the only ones left. If the numbers stay above that threshold set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for three years running, the otters can make it off the endangered species list.
In Morro Bay, their survival is looking hopeful.
For years there have been a handful of otters hanging out here. But now 40 to 60 can be seen on any day, floating around the docks and along the sand strip by the landmark Morro Rock.
They are a familiar sight to locals in one of California's last working-class beach towns, where Central Valley families go for the weekend and fishermen and restaurant workers live on boats and in trailer parks.
Rory Kremer, a deep-voiced, deadpan fisherman, doesn't sigh like a tourist over the whiskered, furry mammals.
“They’re tough critters. They’re mean. They have retractable claws like cats and a jaw like a dog. A 600-pound sea lion will go around an otter. The Salinan Indians called them the bears of the sea,” he said. “But, yeah, the babies are cute I suppose.”
Southern sea otters — unlike their Alaskan counterparts — don’t eat fish, so Kremer said he has no beef with them.
“The only thing is these do-gooders from L.A. who put their kayaks between the fishing boats and the otters. Now why would you put a kayak in front of a 25-ton boat?
“If I see a baby otter, I'm going to cut the engines. I wouldn't hit an otter. Now, I can’t say say the same thing about those otter ladies.”
About 2:00 every morning, one particular otter wakes up Thomas “Sarge” Pauley, a retired Army sergeant who gives harbor tours on his Tiki boat, and his girlfriend Jodi Truelson, a former intensive care nurse. The otter likes to open clams by banging them on their houseboat.
“What are you going to do?” Pauley asked with a shrug.
Southern sea otters were hunted to near extinction by the fur trade in the 1700s and 1800s. It was believed that the last colony was slaughtered near Monterey in 1831.
But in 1938, Howard Granville Sharpe, owner of a small ranch near Big Sur, looked out the telescope on his porch and noticed something odd in the kelp beds. There were creatures with fur and webbed feet that looked like land otters he had once seen on a tropical lake in the Philippines.
He reported the discovery to the Hopkins Marine Station, four Fish and Wildlife officials and three newspaper editors. None took him seriously.
Finally, a Capt. Lippincott with Fish and Wildlife and three junior officers came to have a look. Sharpe wrote an account of the scene:
“They peered through the scope, there came an odd silence. One officer wiped the lens, peered again. Lippincott backed away, hand across eyes. Looking at the object glass he adjusted the eyepiece to shorter focus. Gradually his body grew taut; his voice came in a sharp whisper: ‘Sea otters … sea OTTERS!’ ”
It was worldwide news.
Guards were assigned to protect the newfound otters. But poachers took shots, killing at least one otter and sending the others scattering. Sharks attacked.
Ever since, it has been touch-and-go for the species, which first was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The otters are threatened by oil spills, toxins, bacteria and a range limited in part by sharks.
Researchers believe the recent boom may be the result of starfish dying from a mysterious wasting disease, leaving more sea urchins for the otters to eat.
In addition to urchins and clams, the otters feast on crabs — which eat sea slugs, which nibble algae off the leaves of sea grass, keeping it clean and healthy.
Sea grass provides habitat for fish, cleans surrounding water and takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But these underwater meadows have been dying because of agricultural runoff.
Three years ago, researchers linked the re-population of otters to sea grass returning to Elkhorn Slough on the Central Coast — despite fertilizers flowing in from Salinas-area farms. But the larger environmental connections didn’t seem to be the foremost thing on people’s minds on a recent Morro Bay evening.
As usual, the fishermen dumped fish heads in the water as their workday ended.
“It’s my favorite time of the day,” said Richie Begin, the musical entertainment on the patio at Tognazzini’s Dockside restaurant. Earlier, a giant, bellowing sea lion had interrupted his rendition of “Tiny Bubbles.”
“Right around sunset, here comes the entire ecosystem of Morro Bay,” Begin said, pointing to the water. “The top of the pecking order is my nemesis over there, the sea lion — I call him Ralph in my head. I've seen pelicans dive-bomb him and literally take fish from his mouth. Here come the cormorants and gulls.
“And look! Here’s our nightly cavalcade of otters.”
They stretched out in a line, evenly spaced.
Tourists gawked. Fishermen cleaning off their boats paused to look too.
“They were gone,” Begin said. “You just can’t look at them without being reminded to not take any of it for granted.”