After 11 weeks of intensive care, our team of staff and volunteers is saddened by the passing of sea otter Whiffen who was rescued on a beach in Sooke, B.C. On May 10, the otter was undergoing an MRI under anesthetic to determine the cause of his ongoing medical issues when he began to have trouble breathing and soon passed away.
The scan was intended to discover why the sea otter was still not gaining weight, had progressive muscle loss, head tremors, weakness, and was not getting better. It was also to determine the best course of action and any humane options in Whiffen’s best interests.
Named for the spit of land on which he was found, Whiffen was in critical condition, displayed whole body seizures, was emaciated and hypoglycemic, with injuries to his hind flippers, when he was rescued by our team.
Unfortunately, some necessary signs of improvement never appeared. He did not gain full range of motion in his hind flippers, his neurologic signs continued, and he still needed help with grooming. Of greater concern were continuous high liver enzyme values and progressively increasing Toxoplasma gondii titres on repeated blood tests. Based on his clinical signs and lab tests he had a high index of suspicion for systemic toxoplasmosis.
Dr. Martin Haulena notes that toxoplasma, if that is what it ends up being, is an important disease from an ecological perspective. Caused by an infection by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, it’s commonly known as the “cat parasite disease” and is a major cause of mortality and a contributor to the slow rate of population recovery for southern sea otters in California. Earlier this year, researchers at UBC shared the parasite had been found in Arctic beluga whales for the first time, prompting new investigations to determine if climate change is contributing to the introduction of new diseases to the Arctic.
Although the hope for Whiffen — as it is for every patient of the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre — was recovery and release, the team’s experience with the sea otter will provide important learning and data to help with future cases. We’re proud of our team who made an excellent effort to use every available means to come up with an answer for Whiffen.
The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, presented by Port Metro Vancouver and supported by Teekay Shipping, is a hospital for sick, injured or orphaned marine mammals. The Rescue Centre rescues stranded marine mammals and rehabilitates them for release back into their natural habitat. Donate to the Rescue Centre at www.vanaqua.org/mmr