From the moment he arrived as a young pup at Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre in October 2001, sea otter Elfin quickly found a way into the hearts of his new caregivers by “grooming” the staff’s jackets, rubbing them between his paws and blowing air into them as he would his own fur. Elfin’s charm easily spread to employees, volunteers, members, and visitors alike who, for almost 16 years, have watched him eagerly playing with enrichment toys, enjoying ice treats, and sniffing just about everything.

This makes the coming farewell even more difficult for his Aquarium family. During a routine physical last year, the Aquarium’s veterinary team found Elfin had enlarged lymph nodes, and lymphoma (a form of cancer) was confirmed by biopsy. Following the diagnosis, head vet Dr. Martin Haulena consulted with veterinary oncologists from around the world to develop a treatment plan. Elfin responded well to the chemotherapeutic care and, for more than a year, continued eating and socializing as he always had. More recently, following a change in his condition, our vet team decided to switch the focus of Elfin’s treatment to providing end-of-life care and ensuring Elfin’s days continue to be as happy and comfortable as possible.

Rescued baby Elfin when he first arrived at Vancouver Aquarium. Photo credit: Margaret Butschler

“Elfin’s lifespan has surpassed our hopes and expectations,” said Dr. Haulena, noting that male sea otters live to be 10 to 15 years old in the wild. “Our experience caring for Elfin during this life stage has provided us with important knowledge. By sharing our experience with our international colleagues, it will improve our collective understanding of the care needed by elderly otters not only here but in other rescue and rehabilitation facilities around the world.”

While this transition is a difficult one, the Aquarium team is staying positive by recalling fond memories, cherishing time with Elfin, and continuing to provide him with world-class care.

From the moment Elfin arrived, he won the hearts of our marine mammal trainers.

Elfin was rescued from waters near Juneau, Alaska in July 2001 after he was found on his own by a fisherman. As mother sea otters rarely leave newborn pups for long, the fisherman waited and watched for hours, hoping she would return. When she didn’t, Elfin was brought to the Alaska SeaLife Centre; he weighed less than three pounds and was estimated to be two or three days old. After three months, Elfin was transferred to the Vancouver Aquarium where he continued to receive around-the-clock care. As Elfin didn’t have sufficient time with his mother to learn skills necessary for his survival, he was deemed non-releasable by U.S. officials and the Aquarium became his home.

Sea otters face a number of challenges in the wild. During its first six months, a sea otter pup is highly dependent on its mother for food and, without her, is unable to survive. Much of the mother’s energy is dedicated to the pup and, as a result, her health may decline over the feeding period. Female sea otters give birth every year so if she determines that she has a better chance of rearing a pup the following year, due to environmental factors or availability of prey, then she may abandon the pup before it is weaned. In adult life, sea otters continue to face numerous threats including disease, oil spills, predation, interactions with fisheries, and overharvest.

Elfin with one of his favourite enrichment toys.

Ninety per cent of the world’s sea otters live in Alaska’s coastal waters. Within the state of Alaska, the Southeast and Southcentral stocks are stable or are continuing to increase. The Southwestern stock is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) after experiencing a sharp population decline over the last two decades, attributed to an increase in predation from transient killer whales. In British Columbia, sea otters are found along the windswept west coast of Vancouver Island and the central coast, near Bella Bella. The B.C. sea otter population was downlisted to a species of Special Concern in April 2007 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and through the B.C. Wildlife Act. They are protected by the federal government’s Canada Fisheries Act, and the B.C. Wildlife Act.

Elfin, along with Tanu, Katmai, Mak, Kunik, and Rialto, have become ambassadors for their species. They captivate the hearts of visitors with their furry faces and playful nature and ignite curiosity about their rescue stories, otter population threats, and, most importantly, how we can help protect them.

Learn more about the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre – how we work to save stranded animals like Elfin and the other sea otters as well as Levi and Chester, and how what we learn from them helps marine mammals in the wild.

The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, presented by the Port of Vancouver, 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.

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