The Old Man of the Sea – Remembering Jud Vandevere

Bixby Landing, 1890

After the First World War, the Big Sur area was as sparsely populated as it had been in the 1870s, before the industrial boom brought hundreds of lumberjacks, millworkers, lime kiln workers, and miners into the Santa Lucia Mountains.

Abandoned mine shafts, broken boat landings, rotting lime barrels, and crumbling cabins were now part of the landscape. Bixby Landing was deserted: the three-mile aerial tramway that once transported lime down to the canyon was in ruins. Not far from the crumbling lime kiln were the disintegrating shacks where hundreds of immigrant workers had once made their homes – the Italian village on one side of the creek and the Japanese village on the opposite side ­– the decaying walls of their cabins papered with the yellowed pages of Japanese-language newspapers.

At the end of the 19th century, the Ventana Power Company operated a sawmill near John Pfeiffer’s homestead (present-day Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park). Their plan was to build a dam on the Big Sur River and sell the electricity to the City of Monterey, thirty miles away, as the crow flies. They got as far as building a diversion channel along the Big Sur River, when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake bankrupted the company and put them out of business. But the stonework from the diversion channel is still there.

In 1919, Captain Howard Sharpe, a shell-shocked veteran who had been an engineer and surveyor during the First World War, bought the old ranch house in what was then still called Mill Creek (now Bixby Creek) that John Gilkey had built in 1875. Sharpe opened a resort called the Rainbow Lodge, with a country store and a gas pump. There was a barn, corral, dance hall, stable, and a number of cabins. He built an improved dirt road up the canyon to Bixby Landing, as well as a road down to the beach at the mouth of Bixby Creek.

The Stone House on Hwy. One in Big Sur

Sharpe sold part of the Bixby Canyon right-of-way to the State of California for the new highway and bridge, in 1930. Two years later, when the bridge construction was finished, Sharpe anticipated the multitudes that the new highway would bring into Big Sur. So, he built a stone house on the bluff overlooking the sea, at the north end of what was then still called the Rainbow Bridge (today the Bixby Canyon Bridge) which, at that time, was as far south as the paved road extended, until the highway opened in the summer of 1937.

In the living quarters of the stone house, Sharpe installed a bathtub and a flush toilet – supposedly the first home on the coast to feature these modern conveniences. Incredulous neighbors would make a special trip on horseback to witness a demonstration of indoor plumbing. It would be another decade and a half before those in Big Sur without generators (who wanted it) finally got electricity.

On Saturday afternoon, March 19, 1938, Howard. Sharpe was out on the observation porch of the stone house and he happened to glance through his telescope and saw some peculiar looking animals offshore, playing and floating in the kelp beds. He called his wife Frida, who brought a pair of binoculars. The California sea otter had been officially extinct for more than a century, so the Sharpes (like everybody else in their generation) had never seen one before, except in a book.

Captain Howard Sharpe

Howard Sharpe phoned the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove requesting help identifying the animals. The Marine biologists were predictably incredulous. It had to be a sea lion or seal – otters were well known to be extinct in these parts. Sharpe made three phone calls before he could persuade them to come down and take a look.

A few weeks later, William L. Morgan of the Hopkins Marine Station, lowered himself down the cliff to take a picture of the creatures. He counted fifty sea otters that day.

The news made the front page of newspapers across the country. The Sharpes were inundated with thousands of tourists who came down the coast to see the otters, paying ten cents apiece to gaze through the telescope on the observation porch of the Stone House.

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Very few people were aware that, since the early 1900s, a handful of ranchers on the coast and a couple of members of the U. S. Coast Guard’s lighthouse crew at Point Sur already knew that there was a small herd of perhaps fourteen sea otters off the coast of Big Sur. However, they agreed to keep quiet about it, for fear the mammals would be hunted for their fur, as they had been for generations, before their official extinction.

California Sea Otter photo near Bixby Creek, 1938

In the late 1920s, Hans Ewoldsen, a young German immigrant, moved to Big Sur. He married Esther Pfeiffer, the daughter of John and Florence Pfeiffer.

Hans remembered that, in 1929, “My wife’s father, John Pfeiffer, several neighbors, and I were fishing from a small boat in the kelp beds south of Point Sur. Mr. Pfeiffer pointed out to us several animal heads showing above the water and told us they were sea otters. If we had noticed them before he pointed them out to us, we’d probably taken them for seal or kelp heads. He warned us not to tell outsiders about seeing the sea otters since they were supposed to be extinct. He did this not because he had any plans to harm them, but on the contrary, he wanted to protect them. That the existence of the sea otters here was unknown is not strange since this part of the coast was isolated and not much visited by people who might recognize a sea otter.”

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Southern Sea Otter photo by Ron Wolff

The sea otter is nicknamed “The Old Man of the Sea,” because as they age, their dense fur coat turns from brown to a frosty white. They’re one of the largest members of the weasel family, but among the smallest marine mammals, weighing between forty and sixty pounds. And unlike most marine mammals, the sea otter’s primary form of insulation is a very thick coat of fur, the densest in the animal kingdom.

Three hundred years ago, before they were hunted commercially for their fur, an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 sea otters lived in coastal waters around the rim of the North Pacific Ocean, from northern Baja California to Japan. Their pelts brought the highest prices in the 19th century fur market.

In 1911, the California sea otter was finally protected under an international treaty signed by the United States, Japan, Great Britain (Canada), and Russia. However, by then the species had been officially extinct for seventy years.

A century later, when the otter populations on the central California coast had just begun to recover, their existence was threatened by man-made hazards such as pollution and illegal hunting. Under the Endangered Species Act, the California sea otter was listed as “threatened” in 1977.

When I was a boy, the foremost authority on the California sea otter was Monterey’s own Jud Vandevere.

Jud was nown locally as “Mr. Sea Otter.” His wife, Joyce was my sixth-grade teacher and for several years, almost a second mother to me. Their son, Keith, was about my age, their daughter, Gwen, just a few years younger. In those days, I spent a lot of time hanging out with the Vandevere family.

Joyce Vandevere photo by Nic Coury

Joyce Marian Ryder’s ancestors were a mix of Scotch and Algonquin heritage and had been expelled from Ireland by the British. They settled in Maine where her paternal grandfather, Fred Lincoln Ryder was born in 1867. Grandpa Fred crossed the continent and married a southern California girl.

Fred’s son, Loren Lincoln Ryder, was born in Pasadena, California, in 1900. He was head of the sound department at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. A pioneer in motion picture sound recording and winner of five Academy Awards, he’s credited with making the first full-length feature using magnetic sound recording. Ryder oversaw the sound for such films as Double Indemnity, Rear Window, and The Ten Commandments. He also developed the Vitsa-Vision 35mm horizontal double-frame format wide-screen process. He was a busy man who worked 50-70 hours a week.

During World War II, General George Patton tapped Loren Ryder to devise a means of muffling the noise made by tanks during the Battle of the Bulge, so that the Germans would think that trucks, and not tanks, were approaching.

Loren Ryder married Eva Isabel Snyder, a Jungian analyst from Berkeley, California. Their second daughter, Joyce was born in 1927, in Alameda County, California. Joyce grew up in their parents’ home at 1930 Clinton Street in Los Angeles, California – a few blocks from Echo Park and four miles away from Paramount Studios, where her father was employed. The family had a live-in maid named Gertrude.

A decade later the family had moved to 331 North Cliffwood Avenue, in fashionable Brentwood, California, north of Sunset Boulevard, west of Los Angeles, where all the movie stars and studio executives lived.

Jud Vandevere on his 80th birthday, 2004

In February of 1942, when she was in high school, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the evacuation of all persons “deemed a threat to national security” from the West Coast to “relocation centers further inland.”

Soon, the Japanese American students in her class stopped showing up for school: their families had been relocated to internment camps further inland. This was Joyce’s earliest memory of political awakening.

Joyce attended Pomona College in Clairmont, California. She graduated from Stanford University with a master’s degree in psychology and child development.

On September 12, 1951, Joyce boarded the SS Samaria, in Nova Scotia, beginning a five-month European tour with her college friends. There, she saw the ruins of the burned and bombed out cities and the aftermath of the Second World War. Departing Southampton, England, aboard the Queen Mary, she returned to New York City on her twenty-fourth birthday, February 17, 1951.

A couple of years later, Joyce got a job as the director of a progressive pre-school in San Francisco. Her students included the children many prominent left-wing families, including Harry Bridges, the Australian-born American union organizer. Bridges was the leader of the International Longshoremen’s Association, who in 1934, had led the largest general strike in American history.

The former director of the pre-school, Helen Eells Vandevere, was still working there when Joyce was hired. Helen’s father, Alexander “Alec” Eells was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1862. He was a politically progressive San Francisco attorney, well-connected in the conservation movement, who helped draft some of California’s first workers’ compensation laws.

Alec Eells was a member of the Sierra Club who loved backpacking in the high mountains. He was a friend of John Muir and there’s a photo of him with Muir and Muir’s daughters in Yosemite. Diagnosed with cancer in early 1911, Alec Eells spent the final months of his life wandering the high country alone. He died on October 12, 1911, at the age of 49.

Helen Eels Vandevere

Alec’s daughter, Helen Eells was an activist and educator. In 1922, she married Edward Vandevere, a lifelong registered Republican. Born Edward Gregory Hogan, in 1902, Helen’s husband he so hated his own father, he took his mother’s maiden name.

After her retirement, Helen Eells Vandevere volunteered in the troubled African American Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco. She was the only Caucasian on the board of GROUP (Grass Roots Outreach to Underprivileged People), an organization founded by ten local women in 1965, after the Watts Riots. Twice a week, she tutored youngsters after school at the GROUP neighborhood center, helping them with their homework before they were fed the evening meal.

“We don’t ask them if they’re hungry,” she told a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, “we just feed them, realizing they can’t study unless their tummies are full.”

Every Saturday at noon, Helen Vandevere would stand in San Francisco’s Union Square, handing out anti-war literature to people passing by. “Many people are surprised to see us old codgers giving out pamphlets,” she explained, when she was sixty-six-year-old, “but I tell them, ‘You would be amazed at how many people like me are determined to do something about our problems.’”

Helen Vandevere is the author of the poem, “Matriot:”

There’s not much that’s important at my age
except making the world a better place.
What would I do?

I say we damn well better
get out on the streets again.
Everyone has to put their hand to the wheel
and get out and get off their butt
like in the sixties. We had compassion then,
and we’ve lost it. It breaks my heart.

I’ve lived through two depressions,
two of them. Everyone at that time
was just sick about the way things were,
just like now, only it’s worse now.
I see everything falling apart —
People, starving on the streets.
Children, beaten in their homes.
Sick people without health care.
Imagine this, in a country
that spends so much on the war machine.

I’d spend the money on health instead.
I’d see that children are born healthy
and make sure they stayed that way.
All children no matter what age.
I’d clean the air, the water. I’d take away
all that polluting shit they put on vegetables.
I’d promote the use of sun, sea, and wind
for natural energy. I’d save the forests,
especially the redwoods. I’d ban firearms.
I’d take away every nuclear device man to man.
No more wars, ever. Now we’re talking health.

How are we going to pay for all this?
No one ever says we don’t have enough
money to go to war. No one ever says
we don’t have money for national defense.

This is national defense.

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Jud Vandevere

While dining at the San Francisco home of Helen Vandevere, in the early 1950s, Joyce Ryder met Helen’s son Jud. Jud and his girlfriend had just broken up. However, he’d already purchased two tickets to the entire San Francisco Symphony season. So, he invited Joyce and soon they were dating.

Jud was born in, September of 1924, in San Francisco, California. He grew up in his parent’s home at 135 Edgewood Avenue in San Francisco’s Cole Valley neighborhood, at the foot of Mt. Sutro, then, as now, one of the few undeveloped open spaces in the city. While still in high school, Jud befriended a local a fish and game biologist named Gordon Haines True Jr., who “took Jud under his wing,” as Jud’s son, Keith explained.

Gordon True was a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley. He was born in Reno, Nevada, in 1902, where his father, Gordon Sr., taught Agriculture, Agronomy, and Animal Husbandry at the University of Nevada. Later, Gordon Sr., headed the animal husbandry division at the University of California at Berkeley. Gordon Sr.’s father, Dr. J. E. Stubbs, was president of the University of Nevada for many years.

Gordon True Jr. was a tall, bespectacled man with a shock of unkempt brown hair. He and his wife, the former miss Helen Bishop, lived at 262 Juanita Way, directly across the street from the steep forested slopes of San Francisco’s Mt. Davidson – another of San Francisco’s few open spaces. Gordon True worked as a biologist for the Department of Fish and Game, in an office in the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street.

Gordon and Helen were childless. Jud, a well-mannered and enthusiastic teenager, lived just two and a half miles away. Jud’s son Keith explained. “I see it as a kind of dharma mantle, passed on to my dad by Gordon True, and then from my dad to many others. However, his own father, Edward Vandevere, was probably was the first to inspire my dad in the natural sciences. Although a dentist by profession, Edward was a serious rhododendron expert, he even created some new varieties that may still be in cultivation around San Francisco.”

Jud’s father, Edward died by his own hand, when Jud was eighteen. Helen moved her family to Marin County, north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Marinship Corporation, founded in 1942 as part of the war effort, was a shipbuilding company in the Sausalito Harbor. After high school, Jud worked for Marinship as a professional photographer. An early incident in the civil rights movement occurred at the Marinship shipyards, in 1944 in the case of James v. Marinship. The California Supreme Court held that African Americans could not be excluded from jobs based on their race, even if the employer took no discriminatory actions. This made a big impression on Jud Vandevere.

In the last years of the Second World War, Jud served as a purser in the merchant marine – an experience that left him fanatically pro-union for the rest of his life. He never crossed a picket line or purchased a boycotted product. Joining the merchant marine was one way to avoid being drafted. For nearly a decade, he travelled the world on merchant marine vessels, arriving home from his final voyage from Yokohama, Japan, on September 8, 1955.

Keith Vandevere

Eleven months later, Jud and Joyce got married and moved to the Monterey Peninsula where both of their families had often vacationed. They bought a house in a forested canyon on Via Ventura, in the city of Monterey. They both found jobs as schoolteachers, and raised a son and a daughter.

Joyce taught pre-school and kindergarten. In 1971, she co-founded the Learning Community, an alternative education program at Del Rey Woods Elementary School, where my brother and I (and Joyce’s children, as well) were students.

Visiting the bombed-out cities of Europe after the Second World War had a profound effect on Joyce. A lifelong activist, she demonstrated against military intervention through eight decades. She founded the Monterey Peace and Justice Center and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She supported the United Farm Workers and was an advocate for prison reform.

Jud and Joyce were orthodox pacificists. During the war in Vietnam, they marched and demonstrated, and Joyce counseled troubled soldiers at nearby Fort Ord.

Jud worked as a classroom teacher at a junior high school in Salinas. He was a trained biologist with a passion for the natural world. In 1962, during the school summer vacation, Jud got a job as a naturalist at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, where there were lots of sea otters. He also worked as a naturalist and song leader at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where he used to lead the campground campfire program. His son Keith recalls how his dad would practice his songs in the car, in preparation. Keith remembered one – a spiritual composed in England in 1867 – that Jud may have learned out of the Unitarian Church hymnal:

 

“Now the day is over,

Night is drawing nigh,

Shadows of the evening

Steal across the sky.”

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Jud was in the right place at the right time. Two decades prior to his arrival on the Monterey Peninsula, the California sea otter was still officially extinct. Working at Point Lobos, Jud became familiar with the then mostly unknown marine mammals, when their population was just beginning its comeback. He was adept at (and enjoyed) working alone, and a disciplined and observant scientist. In time, he learned more about sea otters, and soon, he published a few articles.

Shortly thereafter, he quit teaching school and began working full time researching sea otters. When Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, in 1966, the administration decided that State Parks only needed police, they didn’t need naturalists anymore –and Jud’s job at Point Lobos was terminated. They offered to keep him on if he’d get credentialed as a cop, but, as his son Keith explained, “he was not a man who was ever going to wear a badge.”

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Jud Vandevere

Just a few years later, Jud was the internationally recognized leading expect on the California sea otter, and a researcher in residence at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. His work was funded by the federal Marine Mammal Commission and private foundations.

The American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Jud was a member of the Monterey County Fish & Game Fines Commission for more than 35 years. He was unceasingly active in local conservation groups including the Sierra Club, the Point Lobos League, the United Nations Association, Monterey Pine Forest Watch, the American Cetacean Society, the Audubon Society, and the California Native Plant Society.

In an article entitled “Interviewing Radical Elders,” published in the September 2001 issue of the Journal of American History, Sandy Polishuk wrote, “Activists, for the most part, spend their time organizing, not writing their memoirs. Two few of the ephemeral documents of activism – flyers and the like, make it into archives. Many of the decisions of activists are made verbally, at meetings without minutes or even over the telephone. Much of this history dies with the participants unless oral historians intervene.”

Keith wrote in his father’s obituary, “He worked hard for many decades to convince his environmental allies that the preservation of the planet would ultimately depend on social justice and the end of militarism.”

I am now a generation older than Jud was in the days of my boyhood, when I spent time in his company. From this vantage point, I can better appreciate how he influenced my life.

The most important thing I learned from Jud was to have genuine enthusiasm for that which one has chosen to do. That’s what I unconsciously absorbed from hanging out with him when I was just a kid – as he cheerfully collected samples of otter feces off the beach, or stared patiently, for hours on end, monitoring the behavior of some wild creature through his binoculars.

“There’s a whole generation of young men and women who carry on the work that Jud did,” Keith explained. “He certainly launched quite a few people into scientific careers and there’s no telling how many younger people to whom he may have passed on that enthusiasm for the natural world. To me, that’s my dad’s real legacy.”

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Jud Vandevere at Ed Leeper’s Costume Party, photo by David Dilworth, 2012

In 1970, I was nine years old. We lived in a house that still stands on Central Avenue, one block from the tidepools of the Monterey Bay, in Pacific Grove. Daily, just down the street from our house, I heard sea otters at play. I would watch them, as they floated on their backs in the shallow tidal waters, clutching stones in their paws for cracking open purple sea urchins for lunch. In those days it was not uncommon to see as many as twenty whales, in the course of an hour’s observation. I was lulled to sleep by the sounds of the breakers and the incessant barking of the sea lions, down on Cannery Row, a few blocks away.

It was just a five-minute stroll from our house to Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. In the days before there were fences and gates, we’d amble past the Boat Works and down to Hopkins to watch the sunset. A kindly librarian who worked there – an Englishman named Alan Baldridge, who drove one of those late 1950s Volvos that looked like it was designed by R. Crumb – would point out the silhouette of the great blue heron as it glided across the darkening sky. These are among the seminal experiences that awakened the young naturalist in me.

Jud Vandevere was a calm, affable, bearded man, who made a conscious effort to expose his children (and me, if I happened to tag along) to the wonders of the natural world. He was a naturalist to his very core. You could see genuine boyish wonder in his eyes. It was downright infectious.

Never pedantic, he would patiently explain anything (and everything) answering each question in layman’s terms that even a ten-year-old like me could understand. After all, he was a career teacher like his mother and his wife, but you never felt like he was trying to educate you. Rather, he was just sharing his own passionate interest in the subject at hand.

Jud was the local go-to guy for any marine mammal-related incident. When a baby gray whale got stuck under Fisherman’s Wharf, or an seal was sick or injured, they would call Jud. Sometimes, he’d invite Keith and me, and we’d jump into the back of the car and he’d take us with him “to work.”

Jud’s work often involved a lot of mundane tasks like collecting sea otter “scat” (feces) from a beach to assess the animal’s health, or spending long, uneventful hours in the wild, studying distant creatures, through binoculars.

But on certain occasions, Jud’s work was pure adventure – at least as seen through the eyes of a little boy.

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The author on the beach in new Monterey, with Smashnose, the sea otter, 1970

On July 27, 1970, Jud got a phone call about an injured sea otter near Cannery Row. It had been struck by a boat propeller. On the third morning that Jud attended to the wounded otter, he brought his son Keith and me along.

Jud named the otter “Smashnose,” because his nose and left arm had been sliced up by the boat propeller, so he couldn’t hold his breath to dive for his dinner.

Jud purchased several pounds of fresh squid at the fish market, which the hungry otter quickly consumed. We even fed Smashnose by hand a few times. It was a life changing, unforgettable, deeply intimate interspecies experience – the smell of the otter’s fur and the piercing gaze of his bright and intelligent eyes. It helped make me the animal lover I am today, attempting to finish this paragraph while my seven cats compete for my attention.

Smashnose was the object a lot of local interest. The SPCA and police department wanted to intervene and relocate him “for his own safety.” But Jud, in his quiet, authoritative way, discouraged them from removing Smashnose from the beach. He said that if Smashnose was going to recover, he needed to do so close to his home on Cannery Row. 

Clad in his REI boots, faded blue coveralls, rip-stop nylon down jacket, and wool watch cap, Jud stoically spent each day, from 5:00 am until dark, on the beach, protecting Smashnose from dogs, predators, curious spectators, and teenage boys who threw rocks at the injured otter.

But Smashnose was mortally wounded. On the seventh morning, he began suffering convulsions. Three days later, he died.

I wept for Smashnose. I never forgot him. The experience helped indoctrinate me into the religion of conservationism, as practiced by Jud and Joyce Vandevere. I have no doubt that my mother’s friendship with the Vandevere’s had a similar effect on her, as it did for several generations of Monterey Peninsula residents.

Even today, when I interview people from Monterey whom I’ve never met, if I drop Jud or Joyce’s name in conversation, is kind of like saying “the secret word,”  instantly validating my credentials as a member of an elite cadre of social justice activists.

Jud died on Christmas morning in 2012. Joyce died on her 94th birthday, in February of 2021. It is difficult to quantify how much they influenced my world view, but the short answer is, “a lot.”

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The Friends of the Sea Otter newsletter, December 1970

My mother was a member of the Friends of the Sea Otter, a local conservationist group supported by some 1,500 members, founded by Margaret Owings. Jud Vandevere was very active in this group. Once a week, Jud would take a seaside walk with some of his Friends of the Sea Otter constituents.

One day, on one of these weekly strolls, Jud told my mother that Jacques Cousteau was coming to town to film a television documentary about the sea otter. Though Jud and Joyce were only in their forties at this time, most of the members of the Friends of the Sea Otters group were older. They were looking for a young and attractive spokesperson to represent their organization.

Jud asked my mother to appear in Cousteau’s documentary. He told her that it was important for the future of the sea otter. And, in hindsight, he was right.

I’m not sure anyone remembers him today, but when I was a child, the French naval officer, conservationist, and explorer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, was an international celebrity. Born in 1910, he was the co-developer of the Aqua-Lung, the first open-circuit, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (or “scuba”).

Jacques Cousteau, photo by Yousuf Karsh, 1972

In 1956, Cousteau’s documentary film, The Silent World, “a story of undersea discovery and adventure,” won a Palme d’or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. Cousteau remained the only person to win a Palme d’Or for a documentary film for nearly half a century, until Michael Moore won the award for Fahrenheit 9/11, in 2004.

Fifty year ago, in the age before the Interweb and cable tv, network television was our window to the world – especially the natural world. The Animal Kingdom was a staple of prime-time broadcast television. There were zoological tv dramas like Sea Hunt, Daktari, Flipper, and Gentle Ben, and documentary programs like The Wonderful World of Disney, National Geographic specials, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

Cousteau’s first made-for-television documentary about life in the ocean was broadcast on ABC in 1966. Thirty-six episodes of the award-winning ABC News documentary series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, aired from 1968-1976, introducing an entire generation of Americans to the concept of conservationism.

The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau began its fifth season on ABC with the seventeenth documentary film in the television series, entitled The Unsinkable Sea Otter. The program first aired on a Sunday night at 7:00 pm, in late September of 1971, when I was eleven years old. Part of it was shot in Monterey and naturally, Jud Vandevere appeared in the film.

Three short decades earlier, the California sea otter was still officially extinct. In 1970, they were so few in number that the Department of Fish and Game recorded just over 1,000 individuals. Today the population is around 3,000 otters, reflecting an average annual growth rate of about five percent.

At this time, abalone sold for a tidy $5.60 a pound, in Monterey. (Today, wild, fresh abalone costs as much as $100 a pound.) A few dozen commercial fisherman had overzealously overfished the abalone and then blamed the scarcity on the tiny sea otter population, going so far as to lobby their elected representatives to “relocate” the indigenous marine mammals.

Relocating – or “transplanting” – wild marine mammals, only works on paper. In reality, too many animals die in the process and those that do survive make every effort to return to their ancestral waters. Relocating California sea otters might well send the species back into extinction.

In the final ten minutes of the documentary, Cousteau is seen sitting on the rocky shore in Monterey, conversing with a man and a woman. Alliteratively nailing each consonant, terse and tense, the film’s narrator, Rod Serling (of The Twilight Zone) intones:

My mother, Ellen Miller, “concerned citizen”

“The cloud of controversy continues to hang over the fate of the California sea otter. Captain Cousteau speaks with William Bryan of the Advisory Counsel of The Friends of the Sea Otter, and Ellen Miller, concerned citizen.”

“I would like to let the sea otters … extend their range, and the government officials would like to … keep them within given areas,” my young mother explains to Jacques Cousteau. “They would like to move some sea otters, so that if we ever had an oil spill, there would be other otters who would be protected (they think). But wherever they would move them, they would try to confine them to a limited area which….”

“It is highly debatable whether the otters will respect the regulations.” Couteau interjects in his familiar, heavy French accent.

“Or if they’ll even survive the move,” my mother continues. “In the Alaskan transplants, just in capturing animals for transportation, fifty percent of the animals were killed in the netting operations.”

Half a century ago, when I was a ten-year-old boy, my mother appeared to me to be very grown up and very tall. From my vantage point as a man approaching his “three-score and ten,” I watch the YouTube video of The Unsinkable Sea Otter, and see my 33-year-old “soccer” mom appear so beautiful and girlish, she is indeed a very effective advocate for the sea otters.

I am genuinely taken aback – was she ever that young? Were any of us ever that young?

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Monterey Bay is California sea otter country. More sea otters inhabit the area than any other in the State. Monterey Bay now enjoys status as a National Marine Sanctuary.

Kelp forest photo by Douglas Klug

Since the early twentieth century, pollution and industrial fishing caused the slow demise of the vast undersea kelp forests off the coast of California, commonly referred to as “seaweed.” It’s a serious problem – in some places, kelp forests have declined by up to ninety-five percent. These living marine forests provide food and shelter to a myriad of undersea organisms that comprise the foundation of the aquatic food chain.

A decade ago, hundreds of miles of central California coast were thick with underwater forests of kelp, which grows as much as two feet per day. Since 2014, the loss of these kelp forests has accelerated dramatically – so much so that it’s been compared to the loss of the Amazon rainforests. Not long ago, they were among the most productive and dynamic ecosystems on the planet. Enormous areas of the ocean floor where these kelp forests once flourished are now sub-aquatic wastelands, populated only by a purple echinoid called the sea urchin, whose gonads are familiar to denizens of the sushi bar.

A patchy mosaic of what scientists called “urchin barrens” – empty of kelp and overpopulated with spiny purple urchins – were inexplicably thriving right next to sections of healthy kelp forest. The sea urchin overpopulation problem was caused, in part, by the emergence of a disease called “sea star wasting syndrome,” which decimated starfish populations around the world over the past decade, especially on the coast of California. One of the sea urchin’s natural predators, the large, twenty-four limbed sunflower starfish, was nearly wiped out by this disease, causing an overpopulation of sea urchins. This resulted in the closure of the $44 million recreational abalone fishery in 2018.

Sea urchins normally make their homes in crevices in rocky reefs on the ocean floor, where they’re safe from predators. Pieces of nutritious kelp, like falling leaves, drift down to the seafloor, delivering their lunch.

The dominant seaweed species on the central coast, the giant kelp, loves cold, nutrient-rich water. The 2014, the marine heat wave, known colloquially as “the blob,” as well as the warmer sea water caused by the El Nińo weather effect, stunted the growth of the coastal kelp forests, so there was less food for urchins, and they had to look elsewhere for their dinner. With no sunflower sea starfish left to eat them, the overpopulation of sea urchins decimated the kelp forests, turning them into “urchin barrens.”

“It happened so fast, before we knew it, we had lost over 80 percent of the historic kelp forest cover in Northern California,” said University of California graduate student Joshua Smith, who is studying the situation.

Sea urchins

The sea urchin happens to be one of the California sea otter’s favorite foods. The otter is a what they call a “keystone species” – a dominant predator who keeps an ecosystem in balance by controlling populations of prey – in this instance, the sea urchins.

The sea urchin population explosion was great news for the sea otters. Soon, they started eating about three times as many sea urchins as they had prior to 2014. Well-fed and thriving, soon the local sea otter population had doubled.

Even though the otters’ numbers were increasing, curiously the urchin barrens remained. At first it was a little baffling.

It turned out that the otters were only eating the urchins feeding on the nutritious seaweed in the healthy kelp forests, ignoring the “zombie urchins” living in the nutritional wasteland of the urchin barrens.

The otters could tell the difference – they weren’t going to waste their time eating the flavorless and nutritionally-deficient echinoids in the decimated kelp forests. Instead, they dined exclusively on the healthier, tastier sea urchins that were feeding on the intact kelp forests. The sea otters helped keep the sea urchin populations under control, allowing the remaining kelp forests to grow.

Score one for the otters.

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Categories: California History.