I’ve only seen one once. I was staying with friends on Vancouver Island. They took me to a marina in Victoria, where you buy fish scraps to feed to the seals hanging round the jetties. Then we saw him, hiding under the boardwalk, darting out to snatch bits of fish and retreating to his shelter. A sea otter, faster than the seals, but much the same sleek, streamlined body shape, with a thick, glossy fur coat which very nearly led to their extinction.
Nobody really knows how many sea otters there originally were, but they stretched from Japan, via the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands across to Alaska, British Columbia and down the Californian coastline. By 1911, when Japan, Russia, Britain and the United States, signed a treaty giving them protection, there were only about 1000 to 2000 left.
In the days of Polartec® and Thermolactyl®, we are barely aware of just how wonderful it must have been to wear fur for its most basic characteristic, warmth. People who live in cold climates rely on warm clothing, which can take many forms. Woollen cloth was important, and unwashed wool, with the lanolin still in it, could be knitted into waterproof sweaters or socks. Multiple layers of cloth were quilted with feathers or down.
But nothing beats fur for its combination of warmth and lightness – and it has always been expensive. The skins and furs of domestic or semi-domestic animals – sheep, rabbit, squirrel, cat (sorry, moggy owners) – were a by-product of farming, and satisfied the lowered end of the market, but the warmest and costliest furs come from wild animals, especially those from Arctic regions who develop of thick winter coat.
These animals were trapped, not farmed. As the numbers of furry animals dropped across Eurasia, fur trappers turned to other polar regions, North America from the 17th century, and various islands and coastlines in the far south where seals came ashore to breed. In many places, the harvesting of these animals involved cooperation between indigenous peoples and the European traders.
For centuries the global fur trade was huge. But why should the sea otter, Enhydra lutris, the largest member of the weasel family, but still a relatively small mammal, compared with – say – a fox or a seal, have been hunted so rapaciously?
The problem is that clothes are not just clothes. They are markers of status as well, and fur, more than most things, has long been coveted not just for its warmth, but because of its meaning. Furs are highly desirable, so people will do a lot to acquire them: the saying used to be, ‘girls get minks the same way minks get minks’. And not all furs are equal – mink has a higher status than rabbit, even if you call it lapin, as the furriers do. Just as with food, where an Anglo-Saxon animal becomes a French meat – pig/pork, ox/beef, calf/veal – the same thing happens with furs. A damsel dressed in miniver sounds much more posh than a woman wearing stoat.
Sea otter furs had a particular value to the Chinese. During the 18th century, European and American traders visited Canton to buy tea. Unfortunately they had few commodities that the Chinese were interested in taking in exchange, so usually they had to buy their tea with silver. They were always on the lookout for new goods that might appeal. Amongst the most successful were various exotic maritime items including shark fin, bêche-de-mer and tortoise shell.
First the Russians, then the British, Americans and French, discovered during the 18th century that the Chinese liked sea otter skins – and their fate was sealed. But why?
The Manchu dynasty came from Manchuria, and they brought with them a fashion for wearing furs, which spread even to warmer, southerly areas such as Canton [now Guangzhou]. The Chinese Repository (1835) reported that the Chinese wore fur-lined garments made from ‘cat, fox, deer, otter, seal, rabbit, hare, beaver, leopard, and others’, some so precious that they were handed down from father to son.
Many societies strictly control what each class in society can wear through sumptuary laws. In ancient Rome, for instance, only citizens could wear a toga, and there were further rules about whether, and to what degree, it was dyed purple. In Britain only royalty and members of the House of Lords are supposed to wear ermine (the winter coat of stoats).
In China sumptuary laws controlled the wearing of particular furs. There were strict rules about who could wear what. The hoi polloi could only wear sheep and goats skin, while other ranks could wear more exotic furs.
At the time that the Manchus first brought in these laws, nobody had heard of the sea otter. When Russians first brought sea otter pelts to trade in the early 18th century, the Chinese had no local name for them, and called them ‘sea dragons’. Their uncategorised status made them uniquely profitable, because there was no restriction on who could wear their fur. For the nouveaux riches, trying to bend the rules in a hierarchical society, sea otter pelts gave them the opportunity to dress more sumptuously than the sumptuary laws allowed – and they were willing to pay, making these pelts particularly profitable for the fur traders.
And so the sea otters were hunted almost to extinction. Enhydra lutris is what is called a keystone species, vital to the wider ecology. They eat sea urchins, mussels and starfish, which feed on the kelp beds of the North Pacific, and without them, the kelp forests were nearly wiped out too. From 1911, when hunting stopped, until the present day, their numbers have been recovering, but they are still listed as endangered.
They are also amongst the cutest animals I have ever seen. But then, Australians used to hunt koalas, too.