“One, two, three…” With that pronouncement, Karl Mayer of the Sea Otter Research and Conservation program opens the door of a small dog kennel. A 45-pound southern sea otter, known only as 451, paws the air inquisitively, eyes the broad expanse of Elkhorn Slough, and executes a perfect dive into his new life.
Like many of SORAC’s otters, 451 started life in a cataclysm. He was abandoned on a Santa Cruz county beach in October 2008, then brought to the Monterey Bay Aquarium at two weeks of age and seven pounds. There, for nine months, he was coddled, cared for, and occasionally chastised by an exhibit otter named Toola, serving as a surrogate mother.
As we watch, Otter 451 surfaces about 200 feet to starboard, floats on his back, and considers his circumstance. Given the fact that 451 spent the first nine months of his life in an 18-foot enclosure at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SORAC facility, it’s only natural that this small estuary, while less than a mile across, seems as vast as the Pacific.
To date the program has successfully released 12 surrogate-reared otters into the wild—five males and seven females. So far, three of the surviving females have produced offspring of their own.
Considered extinct in the 1920s, southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) were placed on the endangered species list in 1977. Despite decades of federal and state protection, they’re still at a fraction of their historic numbers. In a worrisome trend, a spring 2009 census indicated there were 2,654 sea otters along the Central Coast, a four percent decline from the previous year.
SORAC, a program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has been trying to understand and conserve sea otters for more than 20 years. Since 2005, Karl and his staff have been raising and releasing stranded pups through the surrogate program. The goal is to evaluate surrogate-rearing by studying behavior and survival of pups after release. The hope is that these pups assimilate into the wild population, survive to maturity and produce offspring of their own.
Ultimately, it’s all about conserving the sea otter population. ”In order for this effort to be considered successful, we have to demonstrate that surrogate-reared pups not only survive, but contribute to the wild population,” says Karl.
For the SORAC team, a call can come in at any time. Typically, a beachgoer will find an abandoned pup and bring it to the attention of State Parks, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, or any number of other agencies. “But ultimately,” says Karl, “they come to us. We coordinate all the sea otter stranding responses.”
A pup may have been abandoned for any number of reasons—the mother may be ill, or the two may just have been inadvertently separated. “Our first step,” says Karl, “is to try and re-unite the pup and its mother.” Typically, this involves getting the pup to “vocalize,” for instance, by gently pinching its foot. Hopefully, the mother will recognize the call of its offspring and the two will be successfully re-united.
This occurs only about 20 percent of the time, according to Karl. But if it doesn’t, and the pup is otherwise healthy, SORAC may have just gained another candidate for its surrogate program.
“Anyone seen an otter?” says Karl, at the helm of our small Zodiac. A beeper is going off insistently, receiving a signal from a transmitter in 451’s abdomen, but the otter is nowhere to be seen. Karl scans the muddy banks with binoculars for a few seconds and suddenly declares, “There he is.” Otter 451 is exploring the pickleweed, aimlessly.
Karl and his staff have a lot invested in this otter. For months, they have been watching its behavior behind the scenes at the Aquarium, on video camera, sometimes up to 20 hours a day.
Each pup is placed with one of three surrogate mothers at the Aquarium, who share food, groom and protect the young otters as if they were their own. During this time, SORAC staff take special care to minimize human contact, wearing ponchos and welding masks to disguise the human form. This ensures that the young otters don’t develop an affection for their caregivers—or vice versa. “We need to create a buffer,” says Karl. “These animals are so charismatic, it’s easy to become attached to them.”
After about six months, the young otter undergoes surgery to have the transmitter implanted, in anticipation of release. It also gets colored flipper tags, a transponder tag and a general health check from the Aquarium’s veterinarian. It’s placed back with its surrogate mother for a few weeks to recuperate. If all goes well, a surrogate-reared pup will be released into the Slough at seven or eight months of age.
Karl and his staff are hoping that otter 451 has the skills necessary to survive in the wild. Now, out here in the Slough, they’re about to find out.