Sea otters (Enhyrda lutis) can be seen in Valdez and the waters of Prince William Sound. Sea otters are in the Family Mustelidae (the weasel family), making them relatives to other mustelids in Valdez, such as the river otter and ermines. They are not close relatives to the other marine mammals of the area.
Sea otters in Alaska were nearly hunted to extinction during the Fur Trade period in the 18th and 19th centuries. Following a long recovery through the 20th century, surviving otter populations in Alaska recolonized most of their former territory. Tragically, sea otter populations in Prince William Sound were again devastated by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. According to a study by the US Geological Survey, the population levels of sea otters in Prince William Sound did not return to their pre-spill numbers until 2014, some 25 years later.
Photo by Selah Bauer
Sea otters eat fish and marine invertebrates, and are important in controlling overpopulation of sea urchins and mussels. They are often seen floating on their backs eating food off of their bellies. They have been observed to be tool users, using rocks to crack open clam shells. Otters are often seen floating together in groups known as "rafts".
"Seafood Take Out". Photo by Gary Minish
Safety & Etiquette
"The sea otter is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act which prohibits direct harvest of marine mammals with the exception of subsistence hunting," Alaska Department of Fish & Game
Killing, harassing or disturbing sea otters is a violation of federal law. If you're exploring Prince William Sound or Port Valdez in a personal boat or kayak, please view otters from a respectable distance. For more details, please consult the Marine Mammal Viewing Guidelines for Alaska from NOAA Fisheries.
Sea otters are year-round residents in Valdez, and may be spotted any time of the year. Otters may be viewed from shore in a number of areas around Valdez, such as the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery or at the small boat harbor. However, the best way is to see them from the water is by heading out into Port Valdez and Prince William Sound on a wildlife tour or with a boat charter. While otter-spotting, look for otters floating on the water in rafts or rest on icebergs.