Focal observations of sea otter (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) foraging patterns and prey selection were collected in coastal Washington between 1993 and 1999. Records consisted of 13,847 individual dives from 841 feeding bouts ranging from 1 min to >4 h. Average dive time was 55 s ± 0.9 SE and average surface time was 45 s ± 2.3 SE, irrespective of dive success. At least 77% of all dives (n = 10,636) were successful prey captures (dives in low light or of undetermined success were excluded). Prey capture success was significantly lower for subadults (63% ± 5 SE) than adults (82% ± 1 SE; P < 0.001). Sea otters occupying the established population range on the outer coast of Washington fed heavily on bivalves (63%) and had a diverse diet consisting of several prey groups (n = 10). In contrast, sea otters occupying new habitat in the Strait of Juan de Fuca had a restricted diet dominated by >60% red urchins (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus), with only 2 other prey species comprising >10% of their diet. Prey size and prey category were dominant predictor variables in generalized linear models of dive duration and postdive surface duration on successful dives. Significant increases in areal extent of surface canopy of giant kelp (Macrocystis integrifolia) and bull kelp (Nereocystis leutkeana) were found both in the outer coast and the Strait of Juan de Fuca (0.4–0.5 km2 per year, P < 0.05) and suggest increasing suitable habitat for a growing population. The growth and expansion of a small and isolated sea otter population provides a unique opportunity to examine the relationship between dietary diversity and population status and explore similarities and differences between trophic paradigms established for sea otter populations at other localities.
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