In 'Return of the Sea Otter,' local man shares stories of adorable animal's comeback

In 'Return of the Sea Otter,' local man shares stories of adorable animal's comeback

Author Todd McLeish says he was able to do extensive in-person research for his latest book, “Return of the Sea Otter: The Story of the Animal That Evaded Extinction on the Pacific Coast,” getting up close and personal with the otters.

BURRILLVILLE – Sea otters can dive down to some 300 feet and stay underwater for five minutes. They have the unusual trait of great eyesight both above and below the water line, and can detect the taste of toxins in their food, causing them to spit it out.

Some theorize that another of their “super senses” is to forage for food using their whiskers as a sensory organ.

“They definitely have some interesting skills,” says Todd McLeish, a biologist and author of the new book, “Return of the Sea Otter: The Story of the Animal That Evaded Extinction on the Pacific Coast.”

McLeish, a longtime Burrillville resident and full-time science writer, says this is the first book about sea otters written for adults. There are about three-dozen or so books about the playful creatures written for children. There's clearly a demand, based on the interest among children, for an adult book on the same topic, he said.

This is McLeish's fourth book on wildlife. Others include “Narwals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World,” “Golden Wings and Hairy Toes: Encounters with New England's Most Imperiled Wildlife,” and “Basking with Humpbacks: Tracking Threatened Marine Life in New England Waters.”

McLeish said he was able to do extensive in-person research for his latest book, getting up close and personal with creatures that are every bit as playful as they seem. Otters deserve all the attention they get, not only for being cute and fun but for their big comeback from nearly going extinct 200 years ago.

“It's a great recovery story,” said McLeish.

On Thursday, April 5, 6:30 p.m., at the Jesse Smith Library, 100 Tinkham Lane, Harrisville, McLeish will give his first Rhode Island presentation on his book, following up an earlier forum at the Boston Aquarium. The event gives people the chance to hear his stories and adventures with otters, including capturing the creatures alive and “crazy things” such as conducting a full autopsy on an otter. McLeish will be on hand to sell his books ($20) and sign them, but the event itself is free. The book is now available in bookstores and online.

McLeish self-funds the trips he uses to write his books, and makes the money back in book sales.

Working with more than a dozen biologists, McLeish helped capture otters in California, rehabilitated them at aquariums in Monterey, Vancouver and Alaska, surveyed them from a sailboat along the coast of British Columbia, attended a public meeting where native Alaskans were unhappy about otter hunting rules, met with fishermen who were losing their catch to otters, observed the otter autopsy in Anchorage, and monitored the decline of otters in the Aleutian Islands.

“Sea otters are among the most popular animals around, thanks to their adorable looks and videos of them holding hands, carrying their pups on their bellies, and cracking open shellfish with a rock,” said McLeish, but they also have an aggressive side and are a lot bigger than many people imagine, at five feet long and weighing 100 pounds.

With all of his writing, McLeish said he feels an obligation to translate the science and research into a language everyone can understand and appreciate. The overarching theme of his books is that everyone should be protecting the environment and not messing it up more than it already is.