There were many sea
mammals to hunt for meat. For warmth the men discovered the beautiful
thick pelt of the sea otter. Vitus Bering himself did not survive this
voyage, but his exploration was not in vain. From this voyage, Bering
established the Russians in the North Pacific and in Alaska, and won
the Russians acclaim in the international trade circles as the
discoverers of the most valuable fur pelt in the world.
This voyage is well remembered as the changing moment of the North
Pacific. Bering’s crew took 900 sea otter pelts back to Russia. Many
of those pelts were taken to the Chinese trade markets. The high
quality and beauty of the sea otter’s fur soon made it the most
valuable and most sought after pelt in Chinese trade circles. Sea
otter fur became a sign of wealth and status for the Mandarins. They
wore the fur as belts, capes, and trim on their silk robes. The pelt
acquired the name ‘soft gold’ and each pelt brought between 80 to 100
rubles, a price higher than the famous sable pelts of Russia. 100
rubles was approximately the annual salary of many laborers working
for the fur companies in the North Pacific. One fur could be worth as
much as a year’s pay!
When the fur rush in the Alaskan waters began in the 1760s, like the
sea otter, the way of life of the Native Alaskans of the North Pacific
was also to drastically change. Survival in the cold, cold north was
difficult. The ocean’s creatures provided many of the things necessary
for life for the natives: food, materials for building homes and
tools, as well as clothing. The Native Alaskans were expert at hunting
on the Pacific with kayaks. For Native Alaskans, all animals were
respected and known to have spirits, but the sea otter was
particularly valued. To some Native Alaskans, the sea otter was known
as “the brother.” Among some tribes only chiefs and experts were
allowed to hunt and wear sea otter. The hunting expected of them
impacted their ancient way of thinking. The success of the
Russian-American Company was solely due to the hunting skills of the
Native Alaskans under company rule.
Russian American Company, a profit making company, hunted with no
regard for the future of the sea mammals. Nor did the merchant trade
ships of the north Pacific. From 1803 to 1805 over 17,000 sea otter
pelts were taken in California waters. At times, American trade ships
worked together with the Russian-American Company. The American
merchants supplied the ships and the Company supplied the labor of the
Native Alaskans. A joint venture between the Company and American
Captain O’Cain resulted in the highest known catch of otter in one
year--9,356 pelts were taken. The Company hunted all the way from
Trinidad Bay in Humboldt County to Baja California. Ivan Kuskov,
Ross’s first manager, reported that over 2,000 fur pelts were taken in
the first years at Ross. In the 35 years that the Russian American
Company was in California, over 100,000 pelts were taken. Most of
these pelts were taken on to China via these same merchant vessels. By
the 1820s, the California sea otter had almost completely disappeared.
Coastal Native Californians were also familiar with the sea otter.
Otters were used for clothing, bed coverings, for ceremonial garments
and occasionally as food. It was also a valuable trade item with
inland tribes. Though the Californians were skilled hunters, they
could not rival the skills of the Alaskans. The Russian-American
Company did not use their labor in the sea otter hunt.
1911 the ‘Northern Fur Seal Treaty’ signed by Japan, Russia, Great
Britain, and the United States ended the indiscriminate hunting of
marine mammals, including otters and fur seals. This protection was
strengthened in California in 1913. In 1941 a sea otter refuge was
established. Slowly the numbers of California sea otters are
Today the sea otter population in California waters is around 2,000.
Most of the sea otters are found near Monterey. The Alaskan and Kuril
sea otters have come back faster than the California otters. Today,
there are about 168,000 otters in the waters off the Russian and
sea otter is a member of the weasel family which includes skunks,
minks, sables, ermines, wolverines, and badgers. The scientific name
is Enhydra lutris, which means “otter in the water.” There are 12
species of otter, but only one of them is sea otter.
otters are the largest members of the weasel family, but the smallest
of all marine mammals. Like all mammals they breathe air, feed milk to
their young, are warm blooded, and have hair on their bodies. They are
also known as the ‘clowns of the kelp beds’. Unlike some marine
mammals which use body fat or blubber to keep warm, the otter has very
little body fat. Instead they have beautiful dense fur to insulate
them from the cold Pacific waters. One square inch of a sea otter’s
hide might have up to one million hairs! A human’s head only has about
100,000 hairs. In fact, the sea otter has perhaps the densest fur in
the world. The only place a sea otter doesn’t have fur is on the top
of their front paws. Sometimes they can be seen floating on their
backs and holding their paws out of the water. Their fur-less paws get
cold so they warm them by holding them out of the cold water and
rubbing them together.
Otters can swim up to speeds of 5 miles per hour, but they do spend a
lot of time floating on their back. They use rocks or other tools to
crack open the their favorite shellfish--abalone, sea urchin or crab.
An adult may eat up to 15 pounds of food per day or a quarter of its
Groups of sea otters are called ‘rafts’, which float among the kelp
beds. The sea otters have not yet returned in large numbers to the
area around Fort Ross. However, recently there have been more and more
sightings of single otters. We hope that one day, the otters will once
again live on our shoreline with their playful beauty.