In search of otter delight
From my starboard aft lookout spot, I'm the first to spy a small group of them, barely discernible in the grey gloom of Sitka Sound on a foggy, drizzly Alaskan June morning.
"Otters! Three o'clock!" I shout.
The first mate steps out of the bridge and moves towards me, lifting his binoculars.
"Those are sea otters, all right," he motions to a small group of bobbing furry heads near a bed of kelp, maybe 200 metres away.
"Good spotting." He gives the thumbs up to the captain, who announces the find to the rest of the boat's passengers. They all move to get their own glimpse. I'm ever so pleased with myself.
When Allen Marine Cruises runs Alaskan aquatic wildlife tours it guarantees passengers will spot "an otter, a whale or a bear" or receive $100 cash on disembarkation.
Now, on this cruise, the Sitka Sea Otter Quest, Allen Marine's cash is safe, thanks to me.
My self congratulations are short-lived, however.
It soon becomes apparent that spotting a sea otter in Sitka Sound is about as hard as finding a fish at the aquarium.
Suddenly we're on top of another group of sea otters; that is, as close as our environment-savvy crew will take us without frightening or harming the animals, which is actually pretty close, especially as the cruise company has armed us all with decent binoculars.
It's at that moment that I realise why the collective noun for otters is "raft". These clever critters before me have lassoed themselves together with the kelp that grows plentifully here.
"Sea otters sleep a lot. They tie themselves together to stop drifting away from each other," the onboard expert says. The cries go up among the tour participants: "Aaaw, adorable!"
Closer inspection reveals the raft is comprised of females floating on their backs cradling young. Some of the young are almost as big as their mums.
"It looks like it's time for junior to leave home," my companion says of one particularly huge baby being lugged about in the water by an unfussed female.
"Some of the pups will stay with their mothers up to 12 months," our guide says, sparking mutterings among some of the parents onboard about their 20-something children still at home. "Sea otters are some of the most attentive nurturers on the planet," she continues. "She keeps her pup warm and protected for as long as she can."
"Aaaw, adorable!" the cry goes up again.
We're in raptures, even more so when our guide tells us that in the 19th century sea otters were hunted to near extinction because of the Russian fur trade.
Sitka, and its stunningly beautiful harbour and sound, was originally occupied by Tlingit Indians until, after bloody battles, it was taken by force and became the capital of Russian Alaska by 1808. The city still has remnants of Russian architecture, most notably, the onion-domed Saint Michael's Cathedral (entry to which is included in the price of the Sea Otter Quest ticket).
The US bought Alaska from Russia in 1867. As Sitka is accessible only by boat or plane, being a series of islands in the southeast of the state that face the formidable Gulf of Alaska, its capital status gave way to the more accessible mainland city of Juneau in the early 20th century.
The trade in sea otter pelts continued under US rule until the animal numbers dropped to no more than 2000 worldwide. That's when the species became protected.
Today, they're plentiful. That's much to the chagrin of abalone fishermen, who compete with the sea otters' voracious appetite for the valuable molluscs and highly proficient methods of eating them.
We learn that sea otters have a fold of fur in which they carry around a stone that is employed in their dexterous front paws to crack open shells.
It's an overdose of cuteness and in three hours of cruising time, we will see hundreds of them in many groups. We'll also see half a dozen humpback whales, numerous bald eagles and smatterings of gorgeous blue, orange and purple starfish. We see no bears. But the low visibility makes spotting figures in the shoreline forests virtually impossible. And anyway, those sea otters - adorable. They've made it a morning to remember.
Silversea's Alaskan season is from May to September. Fares are from $3750 each, twin share, for a seven-day cruise departing from Vancouver in May. See silversea.com.
Allen Marine Tours runs tours out of Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan, Alaska. Visitors can book them independently or from the shore excursion offerings of Alaska cruises. Prices vary depending on the company and the booking. See Allenmarinetours.com.