The two types of otters -- sea otters and North American river otters -- have very different habitats and locations. River otters are found in noncoastal water areas of every U.S. state. They're absent in certain areas of some states -- deserts and the Florida Keys in particular -- and are more prevalent in the northwest and north-central U.S, as well as the Great Lakes area. Sea otters live along the Pacific coast, from Alaska to Southern California.
Water Water Everywhere
Both sea otters and river otters are water creatures. In spite of their name, river otters settle around rivers, lakes, streams, marshes and back waterways. As long as the water is fresh or brackish -- just slightly salty -- river otters will consider settling along it. Sea otters actually live most of their lives in the water. Northern sea otters live along the coasts of Oregon, Washington, Alaska and the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. Southern sea otters live along the California Coast, from Half Moon Bay to Santa Barbara, mostly in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. They inhabit the shallower waters -- less than 130 feet deep -- and can be seen foraging for food along the shores, though they also will dive 300 feet down for food.
Although river otters spend a lot of time swimming, playing and hunting for food in the water, they establish their homes on land, typically within 110 yards of the water. The land must have places they can hide in -- such as tall vegetation, hills or piles of rocks -- and plentiful sources of fish and other food. Sea otters are rather clumsy on land, having adapted so well to their life in the water. They do come out of the water, however, to the delight of onlookers who happen to see them lounging on a pier or scrambling along the shore.
On the Move
River otters will pull up stakes and move when necessary, sometimes moving with the season to find more food. Other times, when human development encroaches on their habitats, the water can become contaminated with fertilizers, pesticides and other toxins. Sea otters, however, are dependent on the ocean waters in which they live. Since their habitat is the shallow waters of the Pacific Coast, they are limited in where they can go when waters become polluted, and their mortality rates are indicators of the health of the ocean.
Making a Comeback
It's estimated that about 100,000 North American river otters exist in the U.S. and Canada. Their numbers have dwindled in some areas due to excessive trapping for their thick fur. Efforts are underway to reintroduce them to some of these areas, such as New Mexico and the Rocky Mountains. The sea otters in Washington and Oregon states were transplanted, too, in an effort to expand their habitat and increase their numbers to what they were and where they lived before the fur trade nearly caused them to become extinct. The California sea otter population along the California Coast stands at slightly less than 3,000 and it remains a federally threatened species.
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Barbara Bean-Mellinger is an award-winning writer in the Washington, DC area. She writes nationally for newspapers, magazines and websites on topics including careers, education, women, marketing, advertising and more. She holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Pittsburgh.