The Sea Otter’s Social Behavior (They Form Rafts and Show Emotions!)

Sea otters are famous for being gregarious, delightful fluffs of fur. Seeing them lined up like a pod and bouncing along the ocean waves might make your heart flutter. Or they might completely enamor you when they hold each other’s paws while they take a quick snooze together. 

With all these overwhelmingly adorable scenarios, is it safe to assume that sea otters are social animals? Join Floofmania as we, hand in hand, get to know one of the arguably cutest marine mammals in nature. 

Do Sea Otters Live In Groups?

Yes, sea otters form groups where males and females generally live in different sections of the coastline.

Sea otters inhabit the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean. And male and female sea otters set their separate territories apart, where they can each find kelp forests or rocky reefs within the shallow waters.

Male sea otters will only briefly visit the females when it is time to mate. They are polygynous, meaning they can have many female partners simultaneously. Female otters can also give birth at any time of the year.  

What’s A Group Of Sea Otters Called?

Sea otters form groups called rafts, although some would refer to them as pods

Sea otters recline, float on their backs on the water surface, and hang out in single-sex rafts to rest or socialize. 

Before they sleep, sea otters sometimes wrap themselves in kelp. They can form a close or loosely-knit group above rocky reefs or kelp forests. They then create a large pod resembling a raft, which gives them their group name.

Their resting spots are usually right above their foraging grounds. So sea otters can go on multiple dives to hunt for food directly below them right after they sleep. 

They can then return to their spot and socialize with their raftmates. Or they can immediately go to nap once they’re exhausted to prepare for their next feeding schedule. 

How Many Sea Otters Live Together?

A raft can be composed of two or more sea otters, although it typically contains 10 to more than 100 otters. In fact, the largest raft ever recorded had over 2,000 animals in it!

Female rafts are generally smaller than their male counterparts. They are usually composed of sea otter moms and their pups. 

Sea otter mothers raise their young alone and without assistance from their pups’ fathers.

Bachelor male sea otters form larger rafts. They attract more members that either still can’t or can no longer defend their breeding territories effectively. They specifically consist of:

  • Juveniles that are newly weaned and deemed independent from their mothers (usually a year old).
  • Males that haven’t reached sexual maturity yet (less than 5- to 6-year-old).
  • Adult sea otters that don’t have mating territories (males only begin to actually establish their individual domains when they’re between 6 and 12 years old).
  • Geriatric or old otters (have more white to silvery fur, especially on their heads. Sea otters’ hair tends to go gray as they age – like us humans!)

Are Some Sea Otters Solitary?

Yes, territorial males are particularly solitary. Sexually mature adult male otters individually secure and guard their mating grounds.

Their territories often overlap with adult female rafts as they have the privilege to live among sexually receptive females. Females can freely cross between male domains, too. 

The patrolling male, of course, takes the opportunity to try to mate. Either with a female within his territory or one that has just passed by his grounds. 

The male otter also tries to keep lurking males away from his territory as much as possible. Yet they generally tolerate other sea otters that are just looking for a chance to mate but who don’t have their own domains. So fighting amongst each other is rare. 

Are Sea Otters Social Animals?

Sort of, researchers still don’t fully understand the behaviors and social structures of sea otters.

Yet sea otters are some of the most sociable animals among the other otter species. Males mate with multiple females (polygynous), and females solely take care of the pups. 

Sea otters also show cooperation with one another for important reasons. For one, they form rafts to survive ocean currents and waves.

But while the sea otters’ rafting behavior demonstrates their group social structure, they can also be solitary animals.

Sea Otter Mom-Pup Bonds Are Extremely Strong And Important

Most female sea otters usually have just one pup to care for at a time. 

Mothers with newborn pups frequently rest apart from the others. So a mom and her pup tend to be solitary as moms must give their undivided attention to their young. When the pups are quite grown up, a few moms and their offspring form “nursing groups” and rest together in a raft.

A sea otter mom produces milk and hunts for herself and her pup. She also teaches the pup how to dive, what food to look for, and how to groom itself. 

More importantly, female otters provide their offspring with constant motherly affection and support.

Sea Otters Are Also Solitary Animals

Although sea otters are popular for being playful and friendly, most biologists don’t consider them true social animals.

They hunt, feed, and defend themselves, groom, mate, and give birth away from rafts or other otters.

Eating and fulfilling their hunger is a serious matter to sea otters, and these make up most of their daily activities. So they prefer to hunt alone (or with their pups) to limit competition and take advantage of areas with the most abundant food sources. 

How Do Sea Otters Socialize?

Sea otters can be very social and playful animals at times. They congregate in groups or rafts and spend quality time together. 

Do Sea Otters Show Emotions?

Yes, sea otters apparently have and show their emotions. In fact, two separate occasions can prove this behavior.

The first was when a group of researchers tried to capture a few sea otters to rescue or conduct routine examinations. And the sea otters showed their altruistic or selfless side.

The other otters who weren’t caught vocalized distress. They even tried to free their friends by pawing at the nets. And the otters also stayed close to the net or the researchers’ boat, increasing their likelihood of being caught. 

Sea otters are naturally afraid of humans. But their selfless act of trying to save others without thinking of being harmed or caught themselves shows that they care for their fellow otters.

The other instance occurred when researchers needed to temporarily capture a pup to tag her flipper for monitoring purposes. 

Its mom didn’t understand what was happening and just wanted to get her pup back, so, out of love, the mom repeatedly called out for her pup. She eventually climbed the boat and grabbed her pup back to the ocean.

Do Sea Otters Like To Play?

Yes, sea otters like to play, as both young and adult sea otters are often seen playing with other otters.

Young or juvenile pups like to wrestle to play with one another. They can even spend most of their daily energy playing with each other. This interaction helps the pups to learn about social cues and how to adjust to life in the wild

It could also prepare them for a rowdier and more intense level of playing seen by biologists in male adults. For example, male sea otters in Alaska and California frequently engage in mock fights. 

These activities might be good-natured fun for the boys. But it’s still important to prepare the young ones early through play wrestling to avoid future injuries.

Sea Otters Like To Cuddle And Groom Each Other

Cuddling and grooming another sea otter is most common with mommy sea otters and their pups. And although a sea otter generally grooms itself on its own, some social otters can groom others’ fur too. 

Like this group of playful sea otters here: 

While floating on her back, the sea otter mom will carry and cuddle her pup closely to her chest to nurse it and prevent it from drowning.

A sea otter pup’s fur or lanugo is so buoyant that it will only make the pup float or bob on the water’s surface. Thankfully, the pup will eventually grow out of its baby fur a month after its birth.

But before that time comes, its mom will patiently groom its fur to maintain its buoyancy. Sea otters are actually the only marine mammals that can hold and carry their young for grooming. 

Why Do Sea Otters Hold Hands?

Sea otters hold hands to prevent each other from drifting apart from their group. It also helps keep each other’s paws warm in the cold while they sleep floating on their backs.

While many scientists believe that sea otters don’t very commonly hold each other’s paws, it may still be a part of their rafting behavior. Paw-holding is often seen in aquariums, and some say that it’s a learned behavior that otters learn from their trainers.

You can sometimes observe sea otter moms and pups holding hands while sleeping. They are inseparable as the sea otter pup completely depends on its mother for up to a year.

Independent male juveniles that often form rafts can also hold each other’s paws.

Male adult sea otters, however, are usually solitary, so they don’t typically form rafts or hold hands. Instead, they will be more likely to spend their time looking for mates or guarding their breeding territories.

How Do Sea Otters Communicate?

Sea otters communicate through non-vocal observable behaviors and their famous vocalizations.

Sea Otters’ Non-Vocal Forms Of Communication

There are a lot of non-vocal forms of communication between sea otters. They usually involve nosing one another and general body contact. The sea otters’ “head-jerking” behavior is among the most popular. 

Before a sea otter can approach a group or raft, it first sniffs the other otters in the area while moving or jerking its head from one side to the other. This behavior is usually done calmly. But an intruder would perform the act aggressively by pouncing and lunging through the raft members. 

The biologist, who first observed this head-jerking behavior in sea otters, believes it is their way of greeting their fellow otters. It could be similar to the periscoping behavior in their giant river otter cousins

Here are some other non-vocal behaviors and their meanings:

InteractionMeaning
ClaspingA sea otter mom uses her forearms to hold her pup to her chest and to keep it safe.
InterferingAnother sea otter attempts to move its body between two interacting otters. It prevents them from communicating or interacting with one another.
LungingIt is the sudden forward body motion towards another otter. It may also include a nip using the mouth.
PawingWith one of its forepaws, the sea otter reaches out to contact another otter. Depending on the intention, the otter might do it in a shoving or patting motion.
ShovingThe sea otter forcefully pushes another otter away with its forepaws, usually as a sign of defense or rejection.

Sea Otters’ Vocalizations

Unlike sea lions, sea otters are not highly vocal mammals. 

Adults often use soft, low-volume coos and grunts, which usually means they’re relaxed or contented at that moment. 

But communication between a sea otter pup and her mom is among the loudest and most frequently observed interactions in the wild. 

A pup’s high-pitched squeal or meep can be compared to a seagull’s cry when the pup gets separated from its mom. Its mother might also respond in a loud tone. But moms often avoid doing so to avoid attracting their natural predators, like the bald eagle that can swoop down on its pup. 

There are still more vocalizations that a sea otter can express. But here is a video simplifying the most common sounds we can hear from cute sea otters:

Author: Gra

Hello! My name is Graciola Galo, but my friends call me “Gra” – so can you! Aside from being a dog lover, my bachelor’s degree in biology has helped me develop a deep appreciation for animals. I look forward to learning more about all kinds of wildlife in every future article I write for Floofmania and I aspire to impart that same awe and wonder to you, too!

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