Seeing a sea otter in the wild is an amazing experience. It's no wonder they are the most popular exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Sea otters are a threatened species that have gone from near extinction 70 years ago, to a California population of about 3,000 today.
"Everything we think about this population says it should be growing, yet it is not growing and we're trying very hard to figure out why it's not growing," says Mike Murray with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Threats to the sea otter range from man-made pollution to naturally occurring toxins in the ocean.
There's a very simple way Californians can help protect the sea otter. You can make a contribution as small as a dollar on your state income tax form.
There are 11 good causes that appear on the tax return including the California Sea Otter Fund. Last year, donations in this category topped $255,000, but in this economy, Mike Shimek, executive director of The Otter Project is worried. Some categories are permanent, but the Legislature requires this new fund to raise at least $250,000 this year.
"It's really important that people contribute this year because if we don't make the threshold amount of money, it will fall off the form," says Shimek.
The money is shared by the California Coastal Conservancy and the Department of Fish and Game for both research and protection efforts. The sea otter is widely regarded as an indicator species.
"People do call them the canary in the kelp forest because much as the canary in the coal mine would predict what's going on there, a sea otter can do the same for our near shore environment," says Sheila McMahon, past president of Friends of the Sea Otter.
Sea otter supporters say the tax fund will help make sure this wonderful creature is not only enjoyed at aquariums, but can thrive in their natural habitat.
For more information on the California Sea Otter Tax Check-Off, click here.