Stranded sea otter pup transferred to the Seattle Aquarium for rehabilitation

Rialto 01

In early August, a sea otter pup was reported stranded on Rialto Beach, on the outer coast of Washington state. A male, the pup was estimated to be about three weeks old and was in critical condition; very thin and weak.

Shortly after the stranded pup was discovered, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) contacted the Seattle Aquarium with a request to provide triage treatment to stabilize him. While the Aquarium is not a formal rehabilitation facility, we were selected due to our expertise with hand-raising sea otter pups, proximity to the pup’s location, and ongoing partnership with both USFWS and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW).

A biologist with WDFW retrieved the pup and coordinated his transport to the Seattle Aquarium. Since then, he has been under quarantine and receiving ‘round the clock treatment from the Aquarium’s staff veterinarian, Dr. Lesanna Lahner, in tandem with Aquarium biologists and trained volunteers.

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Sea otters are managed under many state and federal regulations. They’re protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and also listed under the state of Washington as threatened. Throughout their natural range in the wild, some populations of sea otters are also federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, although the WA state population is more stable and does not fall under this federal protection. This puts them in a unique position: responsibility for their management is co-shared by USFWS and WDFW.

As an accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the Aquarium is the Program Leader for sea otter management in zoos and aquariums throughout North America. Our Curator of Mammals & Birds, Traci Belting, serves as the AZA’s sea otter Species Survival Plan coordinator and studbook keeper, a position that was previously held by Aquarium Director of Life Sciences C.J. Casson.

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The Seattle Aquarium has a long history with sea otters—we were the first in the world to have sea otters conceived, born and live to adulthood in a zoo or aquarium. Since opening in 1977, we’ve had nine successful pups born here. We also conduct important research on the species and host a biennial sea otter conservation workshop that attracts biologists, government agencies, veterinarians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world to discuss sea otter management and conservation

During the most recent workshop, the emerging issue of sea otter pups being found on beaches throughout their range was a primary topic of conversation. More strandings are being reported, because the wild population of sea otters is recovering, and the human population is growing along the coast where sea otters live.

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An increase in stranded sea otter pups puts a strain on the AZA-accredited facilities that exhibit them. Unlike many other species, it’s very difficult to successfully release rehabilitated pups into the wild—the only option for most pups is to place them in an accredited zoo or aquarium. Why can’t they return to the wild? Sea otter pups are cared for by their mothers until they’re between six and 12 months old. “Survival in the wild is difficult in the best of circumstances, and hand-raised orphaned pups don’t have the critical skills necessary to survive in the wild,” says Traci.

Accepting a rescued pup is not a decision that can be made lightly. “There’s a tremendous responsibility and cost related to sea otters,” Traci says. “Their care, feeding, space requirements … it’s a lot to take on.” Plus, sea otters form social groups, with males competing for access to multiple females. The Seattle Aquarium, for example, already has a male sea otter: Adaa. Adding a second male would mean we would need a second, separate sea otter exhibit—and the willingness to either split our existing females between the two exhibits or add more.

For all of these reasons, there are times when accredited facilities in the U.S. have all the sea otters they can care for. “The inns are full!” Traci laughs.

To save as much space in AZA-accredited facilities as possible for orphaned and rehabilitated sea otter pups, an agreement was made two years ago not to breed animals under human care. “Not breeding our animals increases the potential space available so rescued pups can find homes,” says Traci. “From now on, the only new sea otters entering an AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium in the United States is a non-releasable sea otter, usually a pup, in cooperation and collaboration with state and federal agencies,” she adds.

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So what does the future hold for this pup if he survives? He can’t remain at the Seattle Aquarium for the reasons described above. But through a stroke of luck, he can go abroad—to the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia, Canada.

Animals protected under the federal Endangered Species Act cannot be exported; they must remain in the United States. But animals like Washington’s sea otters, which are protected at the state level but not the federal level, can be transported to new homes in other countries. Assuming his rehabilitation at the Aquarium is successful, the orphaned pup (called Rialto by his caregivers—named for the beach on WA’s outer coast where he was found) will move to the Vancouver Aquarium as soon as he’s stable and the proper permits have been obtained. “This helps save space in U.S. zoos and aquariums for animals that must remain in the country,” Traci says.

Finding and facilitating a new home for an orphaned sea otter pup is uncharted territory for the Seattle Aquarium. “Until now, we’ve never cared for a sea otter not destined to become part of our collection,” says Traci. “We’re new to the process, and much collaboration is involved—with USFWS, WDFW and the Vancouver Aquarium, as well as the two licensed sea otter rehab facilities in the U.S.: the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Alaska SeaLife Center. It really does take a village,” she concludes.

As of this writing, an application for an export permit to move the pup had been submitted, a process that normally takes between six and 12 months, but which will hopefully be expedited so this pup can be transported to Vancouver Aquarium’s formal rehabilitation facility. Stay tuned for updates on the pup’s health and, we hope, transfer to his new home in Vancouver!

Make a donation!
As an accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the Aquarium is a program leader for sea otter management. You can support the Seattle Aquarium and our mission, Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment by making a donation today!

Additional information:
Baby sea otter Rialto’s heart-melting story of survival—The Seattle Times
6 adorable GIFs of Rialto the baby sea otter—The Seattle Times
Farewell, Rialto: Our favorite baby sea otter is leaving us, but for a new home—The Seattle Times

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Field notes from the Elwha River

Marine Science Interpreter Shelley Johnson shares her recent experience assisting with Elwha restoration research.

View of former Lake Mills Reservoir

View of former Lake Mills Reservoir, from on top of the old dam structure. Pre-water level was where the young, green alder growth meets the old-growth trees.

A few weeks ago I traveled to Port Angeles to spend five days helping researchers from NOAA and the Lower Klallam Elwha tribe with some field work on the Elwha River, tracking changes during the restoration process. It has been two years since the final stage of removal for the Glines Canyon Dam, the 64-meter hydroelectric dam that used to impound the upper reach of the Elwha River, creating Lake Mills Reservoir. Researchers from many different institutions—National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); U.S. Geological Survey (USGS); Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW); National Park Service (NPS); and the Lower Klallam Elwha tribe—continue to track changes of all aspects of the river system, from sedimentation and river flow patterns to fish and riparian vegetation surveys, in order to monitor the restoration process. The field work I helped with was collecting data on food web structure. We collected periphyton samples (the algae, bacteria and fungi living on rocks), invertebrate samples and water chemistry samples. It was amazing seeing the river returned to its wild state and getting to explore some very beautiful sections within Olympic National Park.

Remains of Glines Canyon dam

Remains of Glines Canyon dam, from a sampling site in the upper reach of the river.

I worked with some amazing scientists who have been tracking this restoration project from the beginning, and it was wonderful to hear firsthand about the return of salmon to their natural river system. Carcass and salmon red surveys conducted by the Lower Klallam Elwha tribe last year showed significant increases in the number of salmon utilizing the middle section of the river, between the former two dams. I look forward to continuing field work on this beautiful river system, to track its changes throughout its restoration!

The sampling crew

The sampling crew (Shelley in the middle) of biologists from NOAA and the Lower Klallam Elwha tribe.

According to USGS, the Elwha River basin covers about 833 square kilometers and contributes more than 1.2 cubic kilometers of freshwater per year to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The river also discharges 220,000 to 510,000 tons of sediment annually.

Shelley JohnsonAbout Shelley:

“I was born and raised in eastern Washington state and moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, where I graduated in June 2015 with a B.S. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and a minor in Marine Biology. I started working with the Seattle Aquarium as a Citizen Science Instructor in February, joined the Visitor Engagement team in April and have since been working as a Marine Science Interpreter. In addition to the Aquarium, I have been working as a contractor for the Western Fisheries Research Center (an ecosystem-focused U.S. Geological Survey science center) since last June, assisting with research focused on nearshore ecology and most recently the Elwha dam removal restoration. When I’m not at work, I enjoy spending my time outside doing things like hiking, camping, skiing and white-water rafting.”



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Welcome, Blue Band!

New common murre - "Ipsen" or Blue Band

Wednesday morning the bird and mammal team introduced their newest member of the Birds and Shores exhibit. Blue Band, or “Ipsen,” is a rehabilitated male common murre (Uria aalge), also known as the common guillemot.

He came to Seattle Aquarium after being rehabilitated at Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington, Washington. According to the care center’s “patient of the week” blog, the bird was found in May, “not doing well on a beach. It was lethargic and sitting out in the hot sun.” They noted his feet had lesions, with deteriorated webbing in places, but that he quickly began eating and enjoying time in the tub. Since the problems with his feet and legs caused a noticeable limp, he was deemed non-releasable.

Senior Bird Biologist Sara Perry said, “The birds and mammals staff affectionately named him Ipsen, after a U.S. diver who participated in the Rio Olympic Games. As one of the top diving alcid species, common murres are capable of diving to depths of 400 feet.”

His addition brings Seattle Aquarium’s murre total to four: two males and two females. He is currently molting into his non-breeding plumage, so for now, you’ll be able to pick him out of the group by his speckled head and neck.

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Diving in with both feet for Boeing’s 100th birthday

 Congratulations to The Boeing Company, which recently reached an exciting milestone: 100 years of aviation industry leadership. We at the Seattle Aquarium celebrated from the depths of Puget Sound (well, actually, from our Window on Washington Waters exhibit) while the Space Needle acknowledged the centennial from on high!

Congratulations to The Boeing Company—and a special thank you to Randy J. Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing commercial airplanes, and immediate past chair of the Seattle Aquarium board of directors. Here’s to many more years of partnership, success and innovation!


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Aquarium medalists

Lots of human swimmers have been winning prizes in South America recently—and we’ve got plenty of record-setting marine animals right here at the Seattle Aquarium, too! Here are just a few of the amazing feats they achieve:

Pacific spiny dogfish

Longest vertebrate gestation

Pacific spiny dogfish are ovoviviparous, which means they carry and hatch their young inside their bodies—and these animals do that for up to two years before the youngsters emerge! If we took this competition to the open ocean, the dogfish would only be beaten by a few fellow species of shark, including the basking shark and frilled shark.

northern fur seals

Longest migration

Northern fur seals are the winners here, with a migration of up to 6,000 miles round-trip. That’s like swimming roughly from Seattle to Miami and back. Extending this competition to species outside of the Aquarium would yield a very different result: gray whales migrate up to 12,000 miles annually.

northern sea otter

Densest fur

The prize goes to the northern sea otter, with nearly 1,000,000 hairs per square inch. In second place is a species named for this very characteristic, the northern fur seal. Their coats come in at about 300,000 hairs per square inch. Congratulations to the fur seal for medaling in two events!

Sticking the landing

Leafy hornmouth snails take home the prize for having a shell specifically shaped to help them land upright (48 percent of the time) or at least on the side from which it is easiest to right themselves (37 percent of the time).

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