A: INTERESTING OTTER FACTS
A few years ago, while on a wildlife sightseeing cruise in Alaska, our boat encountered a group of North Pacific Sea Otters swimming placidly off the port bow. As the passengers scrambled about the deck, trying to get the best view of the animals, the captain activated the p.a. system and provided the following nuggets of Otter-specific narration:
- Although they live in the water, Sea Otters do not belong to an aquatic genus; they are actually the largest members of the Weasel family.
- The North Pacific Sea Otter must consume half its body weight in food every day. This means that an average Otter will eat fifty pounds of fresh Alaskan shellfish daily.
- The Otter has the densest pelt of any mammal alive today. An Otter has between 600,000-800,000 hairs per square inch on its body!
- Unfortunately, the unique quality of Otter pelts was almost their undoing. Otter pelt scarves, hats, and shawls were markers of wealth and status across Europe and Russia. In the early days of Alaska, they were hunted almost to extinction because of the luxurious quality of their furs.
- Actually, the reason that Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 is that, believing that there were no more Otters left to hunt, they decided that the land wasn’t worth much anymore. So they sold it . . . On account of the otters. Or rather, the perceived paucity thereof.
- The plural term for a group of Otters is a raft. As in, “at the boat’s eleven o’clock, you will see a raft of otters.”
B: PASSENGER REACTIONS TO THESE OTTER FACTS
- The weasel family? We would never have guessed! The word weasel—besides bringing to mind the pleasing pop! of the children’s song—conjures in the mind’s eye cartoon rodents committing some petty act of larceny against good-natured farm animals. But the otter is not only a member of this family, it is its largest representative. King of the weasels! This is a game changer on the weasel front. We were wrong to judge the entire genus weasilicus (or whatever the actual term is) for the actions of a few overzealous and cheeky representative species contained therein. If the weasel family is responsible for giving us the otter, then the slate is wiped clean; weasels are fine in our book.
- Fifty pounds of shellfish? How jealous we are of the otter! To think of eating
so much seafood, and of such marvelous freshness, and to not even worry about gaining weight from it because of your prodigious metabolism. Oh, how we wish we had fifty pounds of shellfish. Oh, why did we only bring trail mix and energy bars as snacks? (Note: it is possible that there were people onboard who were allergic to shellfish; I assume that these cursed souls, while also envious of the otter, had a slightly more cosmic bent to their jealousy. Why, cruel world, can I not eat crab? Why must even the otter, peaceful and adorable in its raft, remind me of what I am denied by fate and histamines?)
- 600,000-800,000? That is a huge number of hairs per square inch, but, it is
impossible for us to process more specifically than this. If the captain had said 50,000 hairs per square inch, that too would have seemed incomprehensibly dense. If he had said ten million (which we now believe to be impossibly dense, 100 times as dense as the otter’s pelt, which we now know to be the densest on record) we would have taken it at face value; we would plan to parrot it to people at dinner parties for years to come. To sum up: we know very little about pelt density but for the fact that otters manifest its pinnacle. Further, we are completely dependent on the captain not to mislead us about otter pelt density (a subject which we have become convinced is not trivial) and, for now, we have complete confidence that he will not abuse this sacred charge.
- Upon hearing that word, extinction, we experience all the highs and lows of human existence in the span of 3-4 seconds.
a) We feel great sadness for the otter, almost wiped from memory under the ignoble stewardship of our shortsighted predecessors. We look at those innocent creatures floating, nay, rafting in the water, wanting nothing more than to eat shellfish and to hold their adorable young upon their stomachs, and we wonder how the humans of the past (with whom we share genetics and, assuming a metanarrative view of history, a unifying story of human purpose) could be so cruel and wasteful in their arcane vanity. We wonder if we are doomed to continue their ottercidal violence in our own generation. And then we realize that we do not need to wonder; we remember reading articles and book reviews from scientists who can confirm that we, the human race of the present moment, are absolutely as bad as if not worse than every human who has preceded us. All hope is lost. We too will vanish from the earth and from the memory of all who live upon it. We will be judged by those who come after us to have wasted the sacred gifts of life and of a fertile planet on which to spend it.
b) Conversely. Look at these peculiar and happy creatures in the kelp green water: the otters are not extinct. The otters have endured! Buoyed by their giant stocks of shellfish the otters are thriving! Humanity has not brought slack and ruin upon all that it touches! There is still hope!
- Russia sold Alaska to America because they thought there were no more otters? Really? That doesn’t sound completely true. But maybe it’s the fact that it doesn’t sound true that makes it so believable? What a truly peculiar lie that would be! And what would the captain’s incentive be to tell it? No, surely it must be true. In fact, we have never heard a competing explanation as to how America obtained Alaska (nor sought one for that matter). Usually these kinds of things are complex and/or boring and/or involve some kind of depressing conquest; we are refreshed by the eccentric simplicity of the Otter Hypothesis. It is hilarious and satisfying and mildly disturbing, though it is hard to pin down in what proportions. In fact, the entire question requires further analysis.
- A raft of otters? How pleasing the English language can be sometimes! How lovely it is when a plural term seems to be mimetic of the group it describes (otters, holding onto each other in the water, do, after all, resemble a drifting raft). And what about other such terms? A grumble of pugs! A crash of rhinoceros. A gaggle of geese! How fitting that these group nouns should be as diverse and energetic as the animals they describe.
C: DEEP DIVE ON THE OTTER HYPOTHESIS: WHY IS IT SUCH A SATISFYING HISTORICAL NARRATIVE?
- Let us set aside the question of its prospective “truth” for the moment; on the boat, we have no means to fact check it. The Otter Hypothesis is a purely discursive construction, perhaps making it a prime example of how theorists like Hayden White think about history. White argues that because history is disseminated through language we should primarily consider it belonging to the realm of discourse, and, that, though history has its own scientific methodology, we primarily understand historical meaning through the same kinds of story structures that are found in literature—tragedy, comedy, farce, romance, etc.—even though it cannot be said that “sets of real events are intrinsically tragic, comic or epic, such that those events as a tragic comic or epic story can be assessed as to its factual accuracy” (392). For White, the same set of events (such as the very real diminishment of the Alaska’s otter population, and the subsequent sale of the territory) are not so much constructed differently by different historians, so much as interpreted as belonging to different plot types. And, because narrative structure is as central to how humans understand the world as language itself, our perception of a historical moment then reflects how we can reconcile the narrative structure used by the historian with the narrative structures available to us in our culture. And so, to understand what makes a historical narrative convincing or satisfying, we must analyze it in literary/rhetorical terms.
- How the Otter Hypothesis works as a narrative (independent of history): This is a highly entertaining narrative structure that, similarly to a fable, celebrates the comeuppance of a hubristic villain.
a) The Russians are attempting to fleece the hapless Americans into buying what they think to be otterless and thus worthless land. This casts them in the role of an unscrupulous used car dealer (perhaps the sort that would be animated as a standard weasel in a hypothetical Disney cartoon history of the event), trying to sell an old woman a station wagon without an engine. The Russians know about the otter situation (both the otter scarcity and what this does for the value of the land being discussed) but, owing to their greed and lack of good faith bargaining, they choose to conceal this information. If we imagine this as a scene, we are left with complicated diplomatic negotiations in which the Russian contingent spends days sitting across a table from its American counterpart struggling to keep a straight face, perhaps needing to take periodic breaks just to go outside and privately relieve their laughter at the fraud they are perpetrating. We can picture the sale concluding, and the Russians sailing back to their land, laughing hysterically at their victory, sharing drinks of celebration and exclaiming (I like to imagine) in heavy accents: those fools! They paid all this money and they won’t get any otters!
b) But, of course, the Americans get the last laugh. History proves out that Alaska has a great deal of value (minerals, timber, oil) and otters to boot! The shady car dealer has sold an old lady a car with no engine, but, it turns out, the car can fly! Or, channeling classic fables, we can see a version of Jack and the Beanstalk: the Russians have sold America a handful of beans, and the beans turnout to lead to a golden goose! Setting aside Russia, America, Alaska, or otters, the boat captain’s story takes a classic form that we can easily process as a kind of fable.
- As a historical narrative, the Otter Hypothesis offers a unifying theory or “historical metanarrative” for those who would like to find one:
a) American exceptionalism: If you are interested in confirming your belief that the United States is the culmination of societal development (and that all that came before led to this shining beacon on a hill) then you could do worse than beginning with America scamming Russia out of Alaska because of some otter confusion. Not only does it establish America as a global power in an era where it was still scuffling to organize itself domestically in the wake of the Civil War, it does so without casting it as an imperial power (having so recently overthrown the yoke of an empire in its eponymous revolution). Americans by and large seem to love the idea of American global dominance, but seem uncomfortable with the idea that we are (or ever have been) a colonial power. Under the Otter Hypothesis, it is not the threat of American intervention that secures us Alaska; it is the guile and foresight of our crafty negotiators who, miraculously, saw past the lure of the otters to the resources of the future that would await them in that rugged northern territory.
i) It is especially significant that this victory was over Russia, as it allows those who view even 19th century history through the 20th century lens of the Cold War to take a unique thrill in knowing that early America triumphed over what would become our greatest (or at least most narratively comprehensible) rival.
ii) Why it is we connect 19th century human beings with the people who occupied the same space a century later is a more complicated question, but, sticking with the narrative qualities of history, I suppose there is a comfort in connecting the vast swaths of time that precede us with the comparatively miniscule (read: grain of sand in a vast galaxy) time that we occupy, lest we be forced to consider our cosmic irrelevancy.
iii) It is also important that this victory over Russia was, in a way, secured by the otters. This not only makes the Russian adversaries appear comically unprepared for these negotiations (one can recall the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer ruins his chances at a giant monetary settlement from the coffee shop that sold him the scalding coffee, instead requesting all the café lattes he can drink) it suggests that nature itself (as represented in these proceedings by the adorable fur-muppets that are currently listing in the water, angling towards the aft of the boat) is an agent of American success.
iv) It is critical to all of this that the otters have survived. Extinction has a peculiar role in in historical narrative, sometimes seemingly in keeping with Darwinian notions of progress (the Dodo, for example, is seen to have gone extinct due to its own folly and unsuitability to modernity), other times reflecting the worst and most brutal aspects of that same progression (the bison, for example, in its now spectral form, is a signifier of what historical advance destroys; it flags what is lost and not gained as society moves forward). But, if the otters defeated Russia, and the otters defeated extinction, then (by American syllogism) the Russians were the agents of extinction, and the Americans were not. The otters swim happily before us; this story has no victims.
b) The metanarrative of global capitalism: for many of us, the most interesting part of the story is simply the fact that otter pelts were ever deemed to be so valuable. Not only is this a fun aspect of history (throwing us into an imagined past where one can buy a house with nothing but otter pelts as a down payment… or a strange future where a Russian awakes after 150 years of sleep and coolly walks into a bank with a stack of otter pelts, asking to deposit them), but this system of exchange is so clownishly primitive that it makes us (the spenders of paper money) feel advanced and civilized. In the pre-capitalist wild, otters were skinned and worn decoratively to signify wealth. Now, we have portfolios and digital empires. Clearly, the difference between the otter economy and the contemporary economy is that of an evolution towards modern capitalism.
c) The metanarrative of the inevitable collapse of global capitalism: though I doubt that many people on the boat (all of whom were paying $150 for the pleasure of gazing at glaciers before they melt, while aboard a vessel that was probably doing a mile per gallon if it was lucky) were planning for the fall of capitalism, the otters do offer a glimpse of it. The idea that nations are constructed (and territory apportioned) based on nothing but the availability of resources, and that huge parcels of land (and ostensibly the people that inhabited it) could be swapped like trading cards, points to the unsustainability of our system. If otters are that valuable, it is only a matter of time before their scarcity causes a war. If the few hundreds of fur traders are able to control which nation possesses giant tracts of land, then surely they will realize that they have the power, and not the bourgeoisie who wear the pelts (fetish objects of the highest order).
- The otters also refute the notion of a historical meta-narrative:
a) I mean… they are fucking otters! Their furry faces can be found in gift shops across Alaska on postcards that say YOU OTTER BE HERE. Nothing could fly more in the face of history conforming to a single coherent linear flow than the notion that such a significant historical event as the sale of Alaska would happen, not because of an intellectual development (e.g. the enlightenment leads to the French Revolution) or because of a great man inspiring his people, but because of a disagreement over the quantity and value of pelagic weasels!
b) To many onboard (myself included), this thought is oddly comforting. The more chaotic and eclectic the turns of history are, the less unique we are in our feelings of cosmic irrelevancy. The questions and incumbent responsibility that accompany notions of human agency are less daunting in the face of primal entropy. For many of us, the otter is the avatar of history: capricious and whimsical.
D: FACT CHECKING
- Are otters weasels? This seems debatable. Otters comprise the taxonomic subgrouping Lutrinae, which appears, by all accounts, to be weasel-free. They are, however, part of a larger group, Mustelidae, that does include weasels, but also includes badgers, minks, and other sundry carnivores. So, unquestionably, otters and weasels are related, but perhaps not as closely as the boat captain implied.
- 50 pounds of shellfish a day? The consensus seems to be that otters need to eat 25% of their body weight daily, and that they weigh between 50-100 pounds. This (by my calculations) would put their daily intake at between 12.5-25 pounds. 50 pounds a day thus seems like an exaggeration in excess of a rounding error. Our captain has proved willing to play fast and loose with the truth!
- How dense are their pelts? The same website that informed me of the captain’s exaggerations of otter eating habits (and for the methadologically curious, I googled SEA OTTER FACTS, and clicked on the first link) actually CONFIRMS the captains’s hair claims. In fact, he seems to have undersold the density of the otter’s pelt! The good people at “seaotter-sealion.org” peg the number at 850,000-per square inch! (Whether their .org status gives them an officialdom that outpaces that of “Captain Tim”, or whether their split focus between otters and sea lions makes them less credible, are questions I leave to the reader.)
- The sad history of otter trapping seems indisputable. Whether or not the decimation of sea otter populations in Alaska motivated the Russian decision to sell it, there seems to be no question that it affected their operations in the territory, as the population dwindled to such low numbers that it sent the trappers—a class referred to in the liturature as the “promyshlenniki”—to head south on the coast towards California. Additionally, the conservationists who organized the 1911 Fur Seal Treaty believed there to be roughly fifty animals alive at the time of its inception. No doubt, the otters we witnessed in the water on that day had narrowly avoided perdition.
- Why did Russia sell Alaska? And how much did otters have to do with it? Okay. This is where it gets a bit complicated.
a) The consensus seems to be that there were other, much more important factors than the lack of otters in Russia’s decision to sell Alaska. In fact most of the evidence points to two primary factors: the inability of Russia to defend the Alaskan territory in the event it was challenged (something that seemed inevitable given the promises of the Monroe Doctrine), and the need to allocate scarce debts to other imperial projects (such as paying the debts of the Crimean war, and defending territory in southeast Asia). Under this interpretation, Russia saw the loss of Alaska to be inevitable (they did, after all, have fewer than 1,000 representatives on the ground there), and undertook the sale to save face and to cut their losses (Bolkhovitinov 91). This seems like an eminently reasonable explanation (albeit not nearly as entertaining and satisfying as the Otter Hypothesis).
b) This does not mean that there is no scholarly disagreement. In fact, it has been a subject of much disagreement, especially on the Russian side. Some thought the Tsar’s officials had been bribed—with otter pelts?—into accepting such an unfavorable sale (Bolkhovitinov 92), while others took the kinder view that the Tsar had just been foolish and incompetent (Bolkhovitinov 93). Some even claim that the original sale was actually a loan, and counted down to the days that Russia would reclaim Alaska (no doubt making Sarah Palin’s day as she gleefully scrambled the national guard, should she still have been in office), though there seems to be little government momentum for persuing such a claim. These debates, once hotly contested in certain Russian historical circles, now seem settled, and Nikolai Bolkhovitinov’s views seem to have taken hold. (His essay is worth reading simply for his scathing indictments of his opponent’s methodology on their own. One wonders if, among historians, this kind of invective functions as a seemingly civil stand in for the obscenities they might want to hurl: your mother didn’t properly document her sources! Etc.)
c) There also seems to be clear refutation of the implication that Russia thought that Alaska had no value without otters. In fact, Soviet historian S.B. Okun wrote that “it was impossible to protect [Alaska] from the widespread rumors concerning the presence of gold” (92), that partially motivated the sale. Russia knew that the territory had great value, with or without otters. (Though, they also knew that they had little on-hand infrastructure to reap those resources; unlike otter hunting, mining and logging required huge amounts of manpower and capital.)
d) Among all of the sources I was able to find, only one backed up Captain Tim’s sea otter hypothesis. Here is the passage: “But as sea otters became less numerous along the coast of North America, Russia placed less value on the settlements it had established to support hunting, setting the stage for U.S. Secretary of State William Seward to buy the Alaska territory for $7.2 million in 1867.” Pretty compelling? Perhaps conflating correlation with causation, but isn’t that was the whole historical game is about? Assigning causality? However, it is hard not to notice that this single bit of evidence comes not from a peer reviewed historical journal, but from a website called “Seaotters.com.” It is possible that in their metanarrative, otters play a somewhat over-determined role. If forced to render a judgment, I would have to say that the Otter Hypothesis does not seem particularly true.
e) And yet.
i) Strangely, one cannot separate the Otter Hypothesis’ likely falsehood from its initial seeming plausibility. If anything, it struck us as true precisely because it seemed too weird to make up. It seemed like the odd quirk of history that confirms life’s chaotic essence.
ii) Regardless of how it fails as capital ‘H’ “History” (overdetermined metanarrative) or event lower case ‘h’ history’ (a small record of a particular event, as it was), the Otter Hypothesis seems true to how we want to tell history and how we want to hear it. Captain Tim did not come up with this story, nor do I accuse him of knowingly transmitting something partially false. But he judged, perfectly, what we wanted. As an audience of stories, humans seem to like simple historical narratives but not stories of simple causality. In history, as in literature, narrative convenience is unconvincing. The Otter Hypothesis is the perfect combination of simplicity (one factor: otters) and complexity (the one factor defies our expectations).
iii) The Otter Hypothesis also reflects a central element of American history: that we want the sausage but don’t want to see how it was made. We want the spoils but not to be seen doing the spoiling. Our entitlement extends beyond material surplus; we seem to covet narratives that confirm we deserve it.
iv) Are we sure the otter story isn’t true? Otters were slaughtered; this did change Russia’s position in Alaska. That change culminated in the territory being sold. White says that there is no intrinsic plot to events. Causality seems almost inevitably overdetermined. And so, perhaps the Otter Hypothesis is no less true than any other overdetermined narrative?
v) A professor of mine once told me that, in the face of nebulous historical causation, a historian has three options. She can make an argument for causation (elevating a single factor), identify and depict a moment where the historical change can best be described (whether or not this clarifies causation), or she can find a symbolic moment that describes the transition: a kind of objective correlative (to use the literary term) that externalizes the historical moment.
vi) I think that the Otter Hypothesis succeeds in the third count. This period of American history was one characterized by violence and wildness masked as statecraft. The idea that Alaska would be sold because of a lack of otters feels true to the chaos of the moment. And, in its synthesis of historical chaos and pleasing overdetermination I think it is also the perfect correlative for historiography.
vii) I don’t think the otters give a fuck way or another. In this way, the Otter Hypothesis also reflects a central tension in environmental history: do we consign the environment to the background of human behavior, or do we endow it with agency (and thus an agenda) to drive our actions?
viii) I don’t think the otters would really give a fuck about that question either.
- The proper term for a group of otters is actually a romp, not a raft.
a) That’s kind of a bummer. Raft is such a perfect term. I wish that were true.
b) I guess Romp is pretty good too.
Bolkhovitinov, Nikolai. “The Sale of Alaska in the Context of Russian American Relations in the Nineteenth Century.” An Alaska Anthology. The University of Washington Press. 1996
White, Hayden. “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth.” The Postmodern History Reader. Routledge. 1997
 Candid admission: the title of this essay, “Significant Otters” is stolen from a suite of emojis showing otters in love. My favorite is the one in which two otters circle a heart, sort of creating a yin-yang.
 For further evidence that he was a straightforward man, consider this anecdote: a passenger was smoking a cigarette before we set out onto the water. He was down on the dock, and his smoking was holding us up. Captain Tim told him to stop smoking so we could go, and the man responded by throwing the cigarette into the water (an environmental no-no). The man saw Captain Tim’s look of disapproval and, with an entitled tone, yelled up at him “what do you expect me to do?” Captain Tim responded, without hesitation: “I expect you to be a man, put it out on your palm, and get on the fucking boat!”