CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT, Wash. - Imagine their excitement when Jen Zamon and Beth Phillips, seabird researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Point Adams Research Station, spotted a sea otter from North Head.

Sea otter sightings around the mouth of the Columbia River are extremely rare. Sea otter populations are still recovering from the days of the fur trade, when the West Coast population was nearly wiped out for its luxurious undercoat of fur.

The first modern Columbia sighting was Thursday. The women from NOAA were performing their routine seabird and marine mammal survey near the North Head Lighthouse. Floating on its back, several kilometers offshore was a sea otter. They trained the "big eyes," binoculars with grapefruit-sized optics, on the animal to confirm they were seeing a sea otter. They were treated with the quintessential pose - a sea otter floating on its back, rubbing its face with its forepaws.

Later in the week, another sea otter was spotted at Cape Disappointment State Park by Jon Schmidt and Aaron Webster from the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. They got to see the sea otter floating on its back with something resting on its chest. "It appeared to be a crab," said Webster, who cupped his hands to make an oval shape about 8 inches across.

In February, a sea otter was observed in Depot Bay on the Oregon Coast, where they have been extinct since 1906.

In June 1913, the Chinook Observer newspaper reported the very tail end of an era when it announced: "The first otter seen on the North Beach (as the Long Beach Peninsula was then known) for five years was sighted off Willapa Harbor Sunday by ... a crab fisherman. Seven of the otters appeared in one family and were quite tame. Three of them were killed, and one was a 'silver-tip,' eight feet in length, with a pelt valued at $1,200. The value of the pelts range from $100 to $1,500. Formerly otters were numerous along the beach, but disappeared completely a few years ago. Their return means the reopening of the business of otter hunting, which made fortunes for many a fisherman years ago."

Most purported "sea otter" sightings in modern times are really just river otters taking dips in the ocean. Both species are members of the weasel, or mustelid, family, a group that includes everything from minks to wolverines. But sea otters and river otters are about as different as pit bulls and Chihuahuas. Several characteristics can help people identify which type of otter it is:

? An adult sea otter can be about four feet long (excluding the tail) and weigh in at about 100 pounds. (River otters, by comparison, grow to about three feet long (excluding the tail) and max out at about 30 pounds.) Sea otters are stout animals with a thick multi-layered coat of fur. The fur on their bodies is dark brown while the fur on their heads is usually a lighter tan color. All four feet on a sea otter are webbed, with the back feet looking more like the flippers of a seal. If the otter is dark-bodied with a light head, it might be a sea otter.

? Sea otters rarely come to shore. They eat, sleep, mate and give birth in the ocean. Adults drape themselves with kelp while they sleep to keep from drifting off. Baby sea otters are very buoyant, like big corks, and stay with their mothers for a little over a year. If you see the otter on land - even on the ocean beach - it is likely a river otter.

? A sea otter's diet includes slow-moving fish and shellfish of all kinds. The sea otter can dive up to 180 feet in order to find its prey. It carries its food back to the surface either in its forepaws or tucked into its "pockets," extra-deep armpits. Back at the surface, the sea otter might pull a large rock from one of its armpits and set about smashing its prey open on the rock. If you see the otter lying on its back in the water, especially if it is carrying something on its chest, it is likely a sea otter.

? Sea otter skulls are robust. The rostrum, or nasal cavity, is large - about the size of a golf ball. And it has a sagittal crest, the ridge of bone that runs along the top of the skull. River otter skulls lack the relative girth of a sea otter skull and do not have a sagittal crest. Both otters have sharp canines and large molars for grinding food, but sea otters have more jaw strength (hence the pit bull analogy). If the otter has a broad, light-colored face, it may be a sea otter. If it has a dark, narrow, streamlined head, it is likely a river otter.

Because sea otters are so rare, confirmed sightings are important to report. If people see a sea otter, they are asked to gather as much detail about the sighting as possible - its color, what it was doing, and where it was - then call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at (360) 753-9545.

Julie Tennis is an Interpretive Specialist at Cape Disappointment State Park. To contact her, call the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at (360) 642-3029 or e-mail (lcic@parks.wa.gov). The Chinook Observer, sister paper to The Daily Astorian, contributed to this report.

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