A writer, wildlife photographer, and filmaker, Isabelle Groc focuses on wildlife conservation; endangered species and their habitats; and humans' interaction with wildlife. She has a journalism degree from Columbia University and an urban planning degree from MIT. Groc lives in Vancouver.

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Sea Otters: A Survival Story by Isabelle Groc (Orca $24.95)
BCBW 2020

While out walking by Vancouver?s seashore one day, Isabelle Groc spotted in the distance what she thought were masses of floating kelp bobbing up and down. But the movement was odd so she reached for her binoculars.

?What I saw was unexpected and magical,? she says. ?About 120 sea otters holding on to each other, floating gently on the water and resting.? The incident inspired Groc to find out about these marine mammals, the smallest in North America and write Sea Otters: A Survival Story.
Sea otters have made a remarkable comeback after nearly being hunted to extinction for their fur coats in the 18th and 19th centuries. A few small communities in remote places managed to survive and in the early 20th century, laws were passed to protect the animals. Today, sea otters are widely studied but their existence is still threatened, being classified as ?endangered? by the International Union for Conservation of Nature?s Red List of Threatened species.

In the 1960s, a number of sea otters were reintroduced to areas where they had been wiped out, including B.C. where the last original sea otters near the village of Kyuquot on Vancouver Island were killed between 1929 and 1931.

Sea otters from Alaska were brought to the west coast of Vancouver Island from 1969 to 1972 and an ecological reserve created to protect the colony in the Checleset Bay. They survived and now sea otters from Vancouver Island to B.C.?s central coast number close to 7,000.
Many of them feed and rest around kelp forests, which provide protection from strong waves. To sleep, sea otters often wrap themselves in pieces of kelp to keep from drifting away and kelp forests are safe places for females to nurse and raise their pups.

Having a high metabolic rate, sea otters eat a lot?up to 25 percent of their weight every day. Their favourite food is sea urchins but they also feed on clams, abalone, crabs, mussels, sea cucumbers and even fish and seabirds. Once they catch their prey, sea otters float face-up and usually lay it on their stomachs, like a picnic table, and begin eating with their two front paws.
Importantly, sea otters are known as a ?keystone species,? meaning they have the power to hold an ecosystem together. Where sea otters inhabit kelp forests, there are many species who live and thrive on the kelp and there are few sea urchins (being sea otters? go-to chow). Where there are no sea otters and lots of sea urchins, it looks like a clear-cut landscape with hardly any kelp or the animals that flourish upon it, in sight.

?The sea otters were the starting point of an unbelievable chain reaction that transformed the ecosystem around them,? says Groc. ?This process is an example of a ?trophic cascade,? a domino effect whereby a predator at the top of the food chain can change an ecosystem through its impacts on prey.?

And the reason we should care about kelp forests, says Groc is that they are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. They are active nurseries for many young fish. Larger marine mammals like sea lions and orcas use the kelp forests as hunting grounds. Plus, when kelp dies, it falls to the seafloor where other organisms such as abalone, snail and urchins eat them. All this richness is underpinned by the sea otter, the key to a rich, complex and connected ecosystem.

Also a wildlife photographer and filmmaker, Isabelle Groc?s last book was Gone is Gone: Wildlife Under Threat (Orca, 2019). 978-1-45981-737-1

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BOOKS:

Gone is Gone: Wildlife Under Threat (Orca Wild, 2019) $24.95 9781459816855

Sea Otters: A Survival Story (Orca Wild, 2019) $24.95 9781459817371

[BCBW 2019]