Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
When Vitus Bering and his two ships explored the Alaska coast in 1741, they found abundant sea otters so unafraid of them that they sometimes walked right up to their campfires! They were not particularly good to eat, but when they got back to Russia they discovered how valuable the pelts were in Asia and China – that a single pelt could be worth what a seaman might earn in a whole year.
From such humble beginning began the first of Alaska’s many resource booms. The Russians, quickly grasping the abundance and value of sea otters, began colonizing Alaska, first in the Aleutian Islands, then spreading east to Kodiak. south along the coast to Sitka, where they established their capital in 1799 and eventually all the way down the Inside Passage and outer Pacific coast all the way down to the Russian River, on the central California coast.
They were brutal masters, occasionally murdering whole tribes in the Aleutian Islands and western Alaska, unless the natives agreed to hunt for them. But the sea otter trade allowed Sitka and Kodiak residents to have lavish lifestyles, for the times.
Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for us Americans, conservation was not in their vocabulary, and within a few decades, they had basically all but exterminated the sea otter population all up and down the coast, and, unable to support their Alaska colony, sold it to the Americans, many of whom called the purchase, “Seward’s Folly” – Seward was the secretary of state at the time.
Fortunately sea otters rebounded, slowly at first, then more rapidly after they were protected by the Marine Mammal Act. Until a few years ago, the most reliable place to see sea otters was in College Fjord in Prince William Sound, only seen by ships going into Whitter and occasionally Seward. There they could see frequently see on top of small ice floes.
Sea otters are very high on the cute scale. The size of a small dog, they are sleek and furry, and have the unusual habit of swimming backward on their backs with whatever they are eating spread out on their chest or bellies, or for females, their pups or young.
In recent years sea otters have been slowly spreading down the coast from Prince William Sound to re-establish themselves in Southeast Alaska, much to the annoyance of dungeness crab fishermen in the area, as otters are voracious eaters, chowing down on crab, sea urchins, clams, etc.