FLOAT ON

Four important lessons from a sea otter

Masters of calm resiliency.
Masters of calm resiliency.
Image: Reuters/Issei Kato
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We sea otters are the reigning champions of charm in the animal kingdom. We’ve got a lot of cute qualities going for us: the thickest fur on the planet, which constantly needs grooming to stay fluffy; the way we use rocks and other things we find as tools to crack open sea urchins and crabs for snacks; our table of choice being our tummies; and the fact that we hold hands while we sleep.

But let me tell you something: We’re just as scappy as we are adorable. We sea otters are forces of resilience to be reckoned with.

Forget life hacks

You humans all seem to think there’s a magic potion for getting things done. You’re obsessed with the idea that maybe if you just changed your habits you could finally figure out how to be more productive.

But there is only one real life hack, and it’s called work. No shortcuts, no speed-reading, nada. You’ve just got to get out to that kelp forest and forage 25% of your body weight in food in one day—or however it is you all spend your time.

Take major challenges one day at a time

I get it: It’s really easy to freak out when you realize you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. That’s how we otters felt back in 1911, when we were hunted so heavily by you humans that our overall population fell from about 300,000 to just 2,000.

Most of you had given up on us as a species, and frankly, it seemed like you were right. Lucky for us, you guys came to your senses, and made some international agreements to protect us. Without the threat of hunters, we slowly but surely repopulated, and we’ve been doing so for over a century now.

Lo and behold, we’ve managed to come back. Not all the way—our population is still about a third of what it was before all that hunting for our pelts, so we’re still endangered. And there’s still a lot of challenges we need to deal with day to day, like surprise bites by white sharks.

But we don’t sit around thinking about how daunting the task of saving our species is. If we did, we’d probably be paralyzed by fear, and then how would we get anything done?

Contemplating the big-picture stuff is great when you want to decide what your goals are, but limit how much time you dwell on it. At some point, you’ll be better off if you just get yourself a snack and focus on what you can do right now.

Don’t do good things because you expect credit. Do them for yourself.

Did you know that sea otters are a keystone species? We didn’t either, until recently!

We’ve been snacking on sea urchins in kelp forests for years—we don’t know any other way of life. But back in the 1990s, scientists noticed (pdf) that areas where we lived tended to have more robust kelp forests that supported all kinds of life. Coastal sea waters without sea otters were barren.

It turns out sea urchins ruin kelp if they accumulate too much. By eating them, we help the kelp grow. Not only is it a great home for us (and our snacks), but it’s great for the planet: by some estimates the total kelp we protect sucks up billions of kilograms of carbon from the atmosphere every year. Without us, this planet could be even warmer.

Our relationship with kelp forests is how we got the fancy keystone-species status: essentially, even though we’re not a particularly numerous group, we’re really important for the environment.

But what all those other plants and animals think of us doesn’t really matter to us. We don’t do all this environmental work for the credit. All we care about are the snacks.

Take your work seriously, not yourself

When humans spot us in the wild, we’re usually on the surface of the water taking a break from finding food. We’re either lounging or playing. We get it. We look like goofballs. But make no mistake: we work really hard.

You’d never guess how much effort it takes us to keep our coats fluffy and full of warm air, or to feed ourselves and our pups. We just don’t boast about being busy, and don’t really get why appearing overwhelemed is a status symbol for you all.

Sure, it can be really stressful to have curve balls thrown at you, whether it’s a surprise project at work or an environmental neurotoxin suddenly showing up in your favorite snacks. You’ve got to just handle it, and that may require a little elbow grease you weren’t planning on sacrificing that day. So take on your challenges with gusto. Remember: the faster you get it done, the faster you can relish a crab snack and just float on.