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That 'Hilarious' Sea Otter Belly Poke Broke Federal Law

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WHAT. | Photo: Gregory Smith/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Currently making the rounds of social media: a video of a napping sea otter getting a rude awakening by means of a poke in the belly.

It's an undeniably cute video, but should you decide to recreate it on a kayaking trip along the Pacific Coast, there's something you should know: the person who poked the otter in the belly violated federal law. And violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) isn't cute: convictions can result in a year in prison and up to $11,000 in fines.

In fact, even approaching a sea otter deliberately without poking it in the belly is a violation of the MMPA, which forbids any acts of harassment which would disrupt the animals' wild behavior. The MMPA defines that behavior as "including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering." Hard to imagine that waking an animal up from a nap wouldn't qualify.

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Here's the video, for those of you who haven't seen it:

Understandably enough, social media reaction has focused on how cute the otter is, with (for instance) Mashable's post bearing the title "Sleepy otter gets woken up, is hilariously startled."

The Marine Mammal Protection Act doesn't just protect otters: it covers whales and dolphins, seals and sea lions, manatees, walruses, and polar bears. (Poking a floating polar bear in the stomach to wake it up might have resulted in a very different video.)

Life isn't easy for marine mammals, otters especially: the species (Enhydra lutris) is just working its way back from seemingly certain extinction a century ago. Aside from trapping for their thick fur (which trapping is now illegal), otters in California especially must contend with oil spills and other marine pollution, biologically contaminated runoff from the coast, and entanglement in debris such as discarded fishing gear. (California's sea otters are protected under the Endangered Species Act as well as MMPA: the southern sea otter is listed as a Threatened species.)

At one point in the 20th Century, the sea otter's worldwide numbers were down to somewhere between 1,000-2,000 individuals. Building their population back is a tough job: aside from requiring frequent sea otter sexytimes, which take place afloat just like otter naptimes do, re-ottering the ocean requires abundant food and the ability to conserve energy -- a.k.a., taking naps when they can. That means calm water without too many large predators like great white sharks and orcas.

Put it this way: if an otter is napping near you, that's an expression of trust. Why would you betray that trust for a cheap laugh?

Even if it wasn't illegal. And dangerous: for all their teddy bear cuteness, sea otters have extremely sharp teeth and they know how to use them. More than one sea-otter-related MMPA violation in California waters has ended at the emergency room.

Fortunately, it's easy to watch sea otters in California without running afoul of federal law. The group Friends of the Sea Otter offers helpful information for your sea otter viewing purposes, including good locations.

They also offer the Elkhorn Slough Otter Cam, where you can watch hilarious and adorable sea otters without any chance of running afoul of the MMPA.

And if you do venture into sea otter napping habitat with your boat -- I did this summer, and I highly recommend it -- remember to keep a respectful distance from the otters, or indeed any other marine mammal you happen to encounter. Especially polar bears.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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