Lessons from Travels: Sea Otters

by Carl Strang

I have had people claim to me that their experience of the out-of-doors through TV programs is every bit as good as the real thing. On the one hand, it’s true that the person-years spent in acquiring the footage for a typical 48-minute program provide scenes you may never see in a lifetime. On the other hand, if you mainly or entirely encounter nature through the medium of television, you cannot pretend to understand the real thing. It is not really an experience at all, but rather a small piece of someone else’s experience you are sharing vicariously. Furthermore, the small screen distorts what it’s really like out there. My example is Adak Island sea otters.

Sea otters in an Adak cove, mid-1970’s.

Sea otters in an Adak cove, mid-1970’s.

I had seen sea otters plenty of times on TV. That did not prepare me for the real thing. They were huge, their heads appearing man-sized and gray-whiskered, like old men swimming in the sea. Did I then understand sea otters? Of course not, but the feel of the air, the sounds, the environment provided a context for “sea otter” that could not have been obtained otherwise. The experience proved to me how unique they are, and probably was one of the threads that later led to my species dossiers.

Glaucous-winged gulls roosting on an abandoned, rotting pier off Adak Island.

Glaucous-winged gulls roosting on an abandoned, rotting pier off Adak Island.

Sea otters cannot be separated from their context. For me, that includes the mountainous terrain of Adak, its coves with sea otters and harlequin ducks, its decaying World War II structures, and its weather that changed minute by minute. I watch occasional nature shows on TV, but not many. They are just too far removed from the real thing.

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