When he was discovered washed up alone on a remote beach at the edge of Olympic National Park in Washington State on Aug. 1, Rialto the sea otter pup was emaciated, had pneumonia and a gastrointestinal infection. Sick, and stranded without his mother, the tiny marine mammal had a poor chance of survival.
After more than six weeks of 24-hour care at the Seattle Aquarium, by staff that included a rotating team of specialists from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, the pup is now thriving, and yesterday he made the trip north to his new home in Vancouver.
Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium, consulted on Rialto’s care right from the rescue. “Wild sea otter pups can have low survival rates,” he says. “This guy was really sick, so the odds were stacked against him.”
Sea otters are helpless right after birth. A mother otter carries her pup on her tummy for weeks so she can groom and feed it, and teach it to swim, dive, and forage for food. The pup will stay with her for about eight months before it has the skills to survive on its own. Because he stranded at just a few weeks old, Rialto has not learned those skills and won’t survive if released back to the wild, so U.S. officials have deemed him non-releasable.
This is not the first time the Vancouver Aquarium has assisted in the rehabilitation of an orphaned sea otter pup — since the ’80s, the Aquarium and its Marine Mammal Rescue Centre have supported sea otter rehab and provided a home for non-releasable animals. Rialto will soon meet current residents: rescued Alaskan sea otters Elfin, Tanu and Katmai.
First, he must get healthy, gain weight and settle in. Rialto has moved into a newly equipped nursery “behind the scenes” of the otter habitat. Although Aquarium visitors cannot yet see him firsthand, a live-feed from the nursery will be broadcast to a monitor at the sea otter viewing area, and online here.
Brian Sheehan, curator of marine mammals at Vancouver Aquarium, says Rialto will gradually be introduced to the other otters. “It will depend on him and his progress, but we’ll begin letting him swim for short stretches in the larger pool, and then introduce him to the other otters one at a time.”
With high energy needs and a varied diet, sea otters are the most expensive animals to care for at the Aquarium. Rialto is getting a steady diet of clam, shrimp and formula; the costs will only increase as he gets older. To help with his ongoing rehabilitation and care, visit support.vanaqua.org/Rialto.