The Sea Otter Foundation History Page 2


The Sea Otter: 1542 to 1938


The Sea Otter: 1542 to 1938


On September 28, 1542, Portuguese sailor Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (born March 13, 1499) became the first European explorer to set foot in California. He was greeted by Kumeyaay Indians in modern-day San Diego. Cabrillo noted in his journal the natives seemed prosperous, observing some men wearing lush capes made of sea otter fur. The Kumeyaay fished far out to sea in reed canoes and appeared to live in abundance.

At that time otters played an integral part of the ecosystem, apparently living in harmony with their environment, presumably for as long as the natives could remember. Until the 1730’s, when non-native explorers, trappers and hunters discovered sea otters in the Bering Sea. They were quickly wiped out and hunters sought to expand the slaughter. During the 1740’s, Russian hunters sailed to the Aleutian Islands in search of the mammal, finding them plentiful.

In 1751, George Wilhelm Steller of the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences, observed in The Beasts of the Sea, “These animals are very beautiful, they are very valuable, as one may well believe of a skin the hairs of which, an inch or inch and a half in length, are very soft, very thickly set, jet black and glossy.” Steller, a German born naturalist, studied and hunted otters across the northern Pacific, calling them “incomparable, without a peer, it surpasses all other inhabitants of the vast ocean, and holds the rank in point of beauty and softness of its fur.”

Steller recalled the ‘early days’ in the Bering Sea “They covered the shore in great droves, and as the animal is not migratory, but is born and bred here, they are so far from fearing man that they would come up to our fires and would not be driven away until, after many of them had been slain, they learned to know us and run away.” 

During the late 1770’s, Captain James Cook was sailing his third and final exhibition, when he ventured into the north Pacific searching for the fabled Northwest Passage to the Atlantic. Anchored near Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Cook and his crew killed several otters, and traded with the local tribe for additional furs. Otter fur had become very popular in northern China’s Manchu upper-class, who prized it‘s luxury, beauty and warmth.

Cook was killed soon thereafter in modern day Hawaii by native tribes. But his official account of the northern Pacific expedition was published in England in 1784, claiming the plentiful otters and rich profits made in China. Cook documented sea otter fur as the most valuable commodity discovered on the expedition. News of otter fur profits spread rapidly, as did the slaughter.

In 1804, during the Lewis and Clark expedition, they noted otter fur was historically revered by native tribes long before foreign trappers arrived. The natives created regal otter fur robes, worn only by upper members of the tribe. Natives must have watched in horror as Russian, British and American hunting vessels decimated the beloved sea otters from 1790 until around 1810, when otters disappeared from Alaska to San Francisco.

Then the hunt moved south, where otters did not survive long. In 1835 writer Richard Henry arrived in San Diego, noting very few otter hides to be found. Within a scant fifty years after Cook’s exhibition, southern sea otters, caretaker of the oceans near-shore ecosystem disappeared, becoming the first resource to be exploited by incoming Europeans.

Long thought to be extinct in California, the International Fur Seal Treaty of 1911 protected the few remaining otters, known to have become very limited and isolated in a few remote parts of Alaska. Unfortunately, the treaty did little to help a species that was already decimated. The last known southern sea otter pelt was sold in Newport, Oregon in 1906 for a stunning $900.00. The Oregon coast is also the historical point where the Northern and Southern sea otters met.


Please press the button below to continue with Sea Otter History: Page 3