SORAC: ONE SEA OTTER AT A TIME

How do you save an endangered species? One individual at a time. In the sleepy city of Monterey, at the southern tip of the biologically rich Monterey Bay, lies the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It bustles with visitors checking out refrigerator-sized tuna, touching invertebrates in artificial tide pools, and coloring drawings of dolphins and seals. The aquarium however is not simply an aquarium; behind the scenes it is also a research facility and, maybe most importantly, it acts as the facility to help rescued sea otters.

In 1911, only around fifty Southern Sea Otters remained in the world, a hidden population that escaped the aggressive fur trade carried out by Russians during the late 1800’s and early 1900s. Luckily, the Treaty for the Preservation and Protection of Fur Seals was signed at that time by the United States, Canada, Russia, and Japan, creating a moratorium on the hunting of sea otters. Sixty six years later, when the species was listed as threatened under the endangered species act in 1977, there were an estimated 1,789 individuals. Today, around 2,865 sea otters exist (the number can be so accurate because twice a year, a survey is done in which an attempt is made to count every single sea otter along the coasts). Obviously, since these numbers are still quite low, sea otters need external, human help. Enter SORAC.

The Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) program rescues, treats, and releases injured otters. It also raises and releases stranded otter pups through their surrogate program. These processes can’t be done in a one size fits all kind of way. Instead, each otter gets a customized treatment plan, all with the goal of re-releasing them back into the wild.

When sea otter pups are found stranded with their mothers nowhere to be seen, the biologists at SORAC get a call. Once on site, they check out the situation, trying to determine if it calls for action or whether the animal is actually fine. If not, they retrieve the young otter (often not hard as the pups are weak and close to death without their moms) and bring it back to the aquarium. There, they perform an initial medical check-up to determine the health of the animal. It is then placed in isolation and is  quarantined in a secluded, private, and safe holding tank where it is watched and cared for twenty four hours a day. This is the time at which the animal is most vulnerable and the staff is always on high alert. Actual physical contact between the care givers and the pup stays limited (and even then, the staff always wear disguises so the pup does not associate help with people). During those rare visits though, the love that these people, who often volunteer, have for the animals is quite apparent. They will carefully bathe the pup by splashing it with water, only to dry off their incredibly thick fur minutes later. After that, the pup receives a much needed grooming — sea otters don’t have a blubber or fat layer to protect themselves from the cold water like other marine mammals, so maintaining air pockets between their fur for insulation is a matter of life and death. In short, fluffy is best.

If the young otter survives to be four weeks old, the biologists will place it with an adult female sea otter, which will act as a surrogate mother that teaches it the necessary life skills to survive in the wild — this all happens behind the scenes, again to make sure the pup does not get used to people. She will show it how to properly clean its own fur, how to dive for food, and how to open a clam using a rock as a tool, maybe one of the hardest tasks as a sea otter. There are four females that act as surrogates, but one in particular, Joy, has been hailed by staff as a super mom, having played surrogate mother for fifteen pups! The surrogates will spend 20 weeks with the young, after which point the decision is made whether the now grown up pup is ready for release into the wild.

Mike Murray is wearing colorful polka dotted scrubs. That’s the kind of veterinarian he is. Want to see how an otter surgery transpires? No problem he says to me, come on in (of course only with proper medical garments). Today, an adult male otter gets his final medical check-up and is implanted with a tracking device. This male went through the surrogate program through SORAC and will be released into the wild after the surgery. The operations room looks as if you were standing in a top tier human hospital, so does the medical equipment surrounding the now sedated otter.  Veterinarian, Marissa Viens, who assists Dr. Murray during the surgery, carefully shaves off a small section of the otters fur to allow for a clean incision. Then, Dr. Murray, implants the otter with the tracking device and meticulously stitches the otter back up, making a not-so-easy procedure look routine. The tracking device will allow the SORAC researchers to keep a close eye on him after the release, especially for the first few days, since newly released otters are very vulnerable at this time. If something goes wrong, the biologists can find the otters fairly easily (though some searches have required helicopters), and bring them back to the aquarium.

The big day has come, the male will be released today. Karl Mayer, the program’s animal care coordinator loads the crate onto the boat and starts the engine. Elkhorn Slough is the perfect release site. There is plenty of food, no predators, and only small currents. This allows the otters some time to figure out how things work in the wild (no matter what, you can’t reproduce nature to its fullest, so there is always an adjustment period). Karl swings open the door and the male plunges into the water, dives, and pops up fifteen feet away. Without a second look he dives again. We keep careful watch and after a few hours we see him feeding on a clam, using a rock to break open the molluscs hard external shell. In this moment, you can see the success of the whole SORAC program. Without it, this sea otter would have never made it, with it, it has increased the population by one individual. Moreover, in the future he will sire his own offspring, contributing to the population as a whole — in fact four female otters which went through the surrogate program have had over two dozen pups of their own. The programs success increases the survival chances of the whole species. This is only possible because of the dedication of the people participating in the SORAC program.