Seattle Aquarium assists with Hardy, the rescued sea otter

Hardy the sea otter pup. Photo courtesy of Vancouver Aquarium.

Guest post by Seattle Aquarium Animal Care Technician Aubrey Theiss

Meet Hardy, the newest rescued orphaned northern sea otter pup at the Vancouver Aquarium. He was rescued from northern Vancouver Island and is now receiving 24-hour care. The Seattle Aquarium is assisting the Vancouver Aquarium with the rehabilitation of this old pup, estimated to be seven to nine weeks old. Two to three days each week during August and September, a member of the Seattle Aquarium animal care staff will be traveling to the Vancouver Aquarium to offer our help.

A typical day in the life of a sea otter pup consists mainly of sleeping, swimming, eating and grooming. After waking up from his naps, which can last anywhere from five minutes to several hours, Hardy is picked up from his special sea otter crib and placed into a pool. Some sessions in the pool may be just for play time, but every few hours he needs to be fed.

At this age, Hardy’s primary food source is a sea otter pup formula offered from a bottle—however, he’s also starting to receive bits of surf clam which are delivered directly into his paws. After he’s done swimming, he’s brought to a nearby table where we use towels and brushes to assist him in grooming. This daily routine can be exhausting for a pup and once he is finished grooming, it’s usually time for another nap!

Hardy recently had a big day: Kristi Heffron, senior marine mammal trainer at the Vancouver Aquarium, took Hardy for his first swim in the main sea otter pool! The water level was lowered halfway and he swam to the window, where he visited with guests. The very next day the pool was filled all the way up and he began to dive! To see this footage, click this link and see Hardy on his big adventure.

Stay tuned for future updates about Hardy’s progress on our blog. Interested in learning more about sea otters? Come meet Adaa, Lootas, Aniak, Sekiu and Mishka at the Seattle Aquarium—and read our sea otter animal fact sheet!

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Part 3: Seattle Aquarium staff assist with sea otter rehabilitation in Alaska

Follow along with Seattle Aquarium bird and mammal team members Mariko Bushcamp and Aubrey Theiss, who recently traveled to the Alaska SeaLife Center to assist with the rehabilitation of an orphaned sea otter pup!

Sea otter pup care 101: Gaining Independence

At about seven weeks and 11 pounds, Odiak was given access to a large pool to practice swimming. At this point he was already starting to lose his buoyant pup fur and could experiment with diving. After about three days he was able to dive to the bottom of the pool and retrieve a sunken toy! Although he often still needed assistance, he was beginning to groom himself—a huge milestone and relief for his busy caretakers.

As Odiak got older he became curious about everything and anything! Caretakers had to be creative in keeping him entertained so he was mentally/physically stimulated and stayed out of trouble. This can be quite challenging, as even a two-month-old sea otter pup has sharp destructive teeth. Sea otters are one of the few non-primate, tool-using mammals and have extremely dexterous paws. In the wild, they use these paws, along with tools (such as rocks), to locate and break open prey items. Caretakers strive to mimic these natural behaviors through the use of enrichment items to encourage independence and stimulation. Toys frozen into blocks of ice, as pictured, are a favorite of Odiak. Mariko found herself filling the freezer with endless possibilities of ice toy combinations to keep Odiak as entertained as possible. Much like a toddler!

It was also time to teach Odiak some manners so he could be prepared for living with other sea otters in a zoo or aquarium. Caretakers began to train basic useful behaviors, such as voluntary kenneling/weighing, asking him to go into the water, and stationing for meals. Before every feed, Aubrey asked Odiak to go into the water and station along the deck so he could get accustomed to eating like an adult sea otter. These are all behaviors that help the staff stay safe, as Odiak will be over 70 pounds one day! Desensitizing him to being inside of a kennel is particularly important so that caretakers can easily weigh and transport him.

Follow Odiak’s progress at the Alaska SeaLife Center at www.alaskasealife.org. And stay tuned for our upcoming blog series following Seattle Aquarium staff members assisting with the rehabilitation of Hardy, a rescued sea otter pup at the Vancouver Aquarium!

Activities authorized by USFWS permit LOA-837414

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Part 2: Seattle Aquarium staff assist with sea otter rehabilitation in Alaska

Follow along with Seattle Aquarium bird and mammal team members Mariko Bushcamp and Aubrey Theiss, who recently traveled to the Alaska SeaLife Center to assist with the rehabilitation of an orphaned sea otter pup!

Photo via the Alaska SeaLife Center

Sea otter pup care 101: the first two months

Odiak was found orphaned on March 18, 2017 at about three weeks of age and weighing nearly five pounds. He was named after a slough near the city of Cordova where he was found. Although he was otherwise healthy, he was deemed non-releasable because he would not have the opportunity to learn the life skills necessary to survive from his mother. He will receive 24-hour veterinary attention and care at the Alaska SeaLife Center until he is independent and ready to be transported to a zoo or aquarium.

Mariko and Aubrey helped with three different shifts around the clock: day shift (8am–4pm); evening shift (4pm–midnight), and an overnight shift (midnight–8am.) Odiak kept them busy, even during the night shift when there were feeds, grooming, toys to be made, and cleaning and laundry to be done.

Photo via the Alaska SeaLife Center

Neonatal sea otter pups start out in a crib with mesh siding that allows for airflow to help maintain a dry coat. A water or air mattress is placed on the bottom of the crib to simulate a wave-like motion, mimicking the feeling of floating in the water without getting wet. Fans and flexible ice packs are used along the sides of the mattress to ensure that the pup doesn’t overheat in its dense fur coat. This coat must be groomed almost constantly with clean towels, combs and a blow dryer to keep fur quality waterproof and at its best. Sea otter pups are born with extremely buoyant fur that allows for floating high in the water if properly groomed.

Odiak could be fussy during the day but was much more willing to let Mariko groom him while he was sleeping at night. Every two hours he is offered a custom sea otter formula that consists of puppy milk replacement, an electrolyte solution and blended clam meat. As he became more mobile, he was given supervised opportunities to float in water and play with toys. Sea otters love to manipulate objects from a very early age!

At about one month old and seven pounds, Odiak started to learn how to swim and hold his breath in a small tub of water. Caretakers started allowing him to dunk his head in a few inches of shallow water to explore toys below the surface. His premolars had also erupted and he was slowly introduced to some solid food items such as clam and squid bits. Mariko often used his bottle to reward him for eating his squid and clam.

In the wild, a mother would be introducing her pup to the large diversity of food items that are available to eat. It is thought that wild sea otters only have a short window of opportunity to learn how to identify things in their environment to eat.

Looking for ways to help sea otters in the wild?

The rescue and rehabilitation of a stranded sea otter pup is no easy task. Due to the expertise of the incredible staff at the ASLC, the chances of survival of the pup Mariko and Aubrey cared for is very good. Not all are so lucky. It’s imperative that we all do what we can to keep sea otters and all marine life thriving in the wild. Believe it or not, the things we do at home, regardless of how far away we live from the sea, can affect the ocean and the animals that live in it.

You can help in the simplest of ways: reduce, reuse, recycle. Reduce the amount single-use plastic you purchase, and choose reusable bags and water bottles whenever you can. Take a good look at the amount of trash you send to the landfill and work to reduce it. Compost and recycle whatever you can.

You’ll be making a difference for the marine environment and marine mammals!

Activities authorized by USFWS permit LOA-837414

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Part 1: Seattle Aquarium staff assist with sea otter rehabilitation in Alaska

Follow along with Seattle Aquarium bird and mammal team members Mariko Bushcamp and Aubrey Theiss, who recently traveled to the Alaska SeaLife Center to assist with the rehabilitation of an orphaned sea otter pup!

The Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) wildlife response and rehabilitation program is located in Seward, Alaska, a small city in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. It is the only facility in the state of Alaska authorized to rehabilitate live marine mammals. Their program is not only critical in responding to marine wildlife in need, but also in gathering scientific knowledge to better understand changes in Alaska’s wild populations and ecosystems.

Photo via the Alaska SeaLife Center

Although it is the ASLC’s goal to release rescued animals, that’s not always possible. Due to the dependency sea otter pups have on their mothers, they are deemed non-releasable if they are orphaned at less than six months of age. A sea otter mother gives her pup almost constant attention—grooming, nursing, and eventually giving swimming, diving and foraging lessons. Orphaned pups are therefore unable to develop the skills needed to succeed in the wild and must go into human care at a zoo or aquarium.

Just as caring for a pup is a 24-hour job for a sea otter mother, orphaned pups also need around-the-clock attention. Stay tuned for our next posts, all about sea otter pup care!

What to do if you spot marine mammal in distress?

Call 1-87SEAOTTER for sea otters; if you see any other species of marine mammal in need of rescue, please call the NOAA Stranding Network hotline 1-866-767-1964.

It’s important to understand that seals and sea lions naturally use the shore to rest. Most often reported in Washington state are harbor seal pups, from late spring into early fall. A mother harbor seal only nurses her pup for four to six weeks before it is weaned and on its own. It is quite common for hungry, tired, solitary pups to rest on land during their transition to independence.

If the animal appears injured or has not moved from one location for more than 24 hours, it may be time for professionals to assess the situation. Providing as much information as possible about the animal you are reporting can be very helpful when prioritizing response. How long has the animal been stranded? Describe the exact location. Does it appear to be injured? Any and all information can be helpful.

Approaching, touching or picking up a seal is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and subject to a fine. Whether you’re on land or in the water, viewing of any marine mammal must be from a distance of at least 100 yards (the length of a football field). Disturbing or handling a wild seal is not only potentially harmful for the seal’s natural life cycle, but it can also be very dangerous to people and dogs, as seals have sharp teeth and can inflict serious bites.

Activities authorized by USFWS permit LOA-837414

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Part 2: Katmai sea otter research trip 2017

Dr. Shawn Larson, the Aquarium’s curator of conservation research, was recently part of the team for the Southwest Alaska Network’s (SWAN) Nearshore Vital Signs monitoring program 10-day research trip. The eleven participating researchers were affiliated with the United States Geologic Survey (USGS), National Park Service (NPS), University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Seattle Aquarium. Below, she recaps highlights from the second half of the trip. You can read Part 1 here.

Day 6: June 24, 2017

Today we moved the boat to Kinak Bay and anchored overnight in Hidden Harbor, a very beautiful spot. I was part of the mussel crew in the morning, and then in the afternoon we did black oystercatcher surveys “bloys” into “misty lagoon” with the incoming tide. The black oystercatcher surveys involve finding a pair of nesting oystercatchers and then finding their eggs or chicks. If there are eggs, we measure them by floating them in a container of water to determine their relative development (an egg that sinks is just laid and a floating egg is close to hatching). If there are chicks, then we gather the shells around the nest to determine what the parents are feeding their young. The oystercatcher, like the sea otter, is an indicator species of the health of these waters.

Day 7: June 25, 2017

The next day we pulled anchor and left for our final survey site in Kukak Bay, the end of which is near where Tim Tredwell, “the grizzly man,” was killed by a grizzly as he was camping near them. A documentary was made about Tim Tredwell and his connection to the Katmai grizzlies. My task for the morning was to be part of the soft crew digging clams and mussels. We were visited by a relatively tame red fox who tried to help us with our survey gear and our boat anchor line.

Day 8: June 26, 2017

Day two in Kukak. Today we need to gather sea otter foraging data, black oystercatcher surveys and marine bird and mammal surveys. Our goal is 50 foraging bouts for sea otters the entire trip but I think we’ll get more.

Day 9: June 27, 2017

We moved to the entrance of the harbor into a place called Devil’s Cove. We anchored there and finished marine bird and mammal surveys, and sea otter forage bouts. We perched on one rock in the middle of the outer bay and gathered over 38 bouts! For the trip we gathered over 75 bouts—way past our 50-bout goal.

Day 10: June 28, 2017

Today we are heading home! It’s been a great trip on board the Dreamcatcher and a life-changing experience in the Katmai National Park!

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