The Vancouver Aquarium has welcomed an adorable new arrival.
Small, furry and still attached to her fleshy umbilical cord, this newborn Northern sea otter caught the attention of some fishermen trawling for salmon at Alaska’s Anchor Point in April. They watched her for an hour and saw that she was on her own, so they alerted the Alaska SeaLife Center, then met volunteers at Homer Harbor, who took her to the Center in Seward.
There, the abandoned dependent pup — soon named Tazlina, after a southeastern Alaska region near the place where she was discovered — weighed in at 1.45 kg. Animal care staff did bloodwork and a body exam, revealing that Tazlina was dehydrated. Some of her teeth had erupted, but her incisors and molars were still crowning, which helped staff determine that she had probably been born on the day she was found.
Most sea otter pups are deemed non-releasable by the government due to the amount of hands-on care that is needed during the rehabilitation process. They are exposed to a lot of human contact because of bottle feeding and grooming, and become so comfortable with it that they might be unsafe in the wild.
Under 24-hour care in Alaska, Tazlina took to the bottle easily.
“Normally, a sea otter pup would get her nutrition from her mother’s milk. So Tazlina was given supplements and bottle-fed with a proven mixture of puppy formula and ground-up frozen clams,” said Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Trainer Rachel Nelson, who spent three weeks in Alaska getting to know young “Taz.”
Once her nutritional needs were met, Tazlina began to learn what Nelson described as “sea otter life skills.” Those included grooming. Far from worrying about aesthetics, sea otters must groom themselves to remove the dreadlocks that form in their fur, because if their fur clumps, they can’t thermo-regulate properly. That means that water can reach their skin and chill the marine mammals enough that they can contract hypothermia.
Staff members used a combination of their fingers and combs in order to ensure that Tazlina’s fur was properly groomed.
“She’s very curious, so she started to mimic that behaviour,” said Nelson. Learning to groom herself early was essential, because sea otters will only urinate and defecate when they’re in the water. Tazlina had to be able to keep herself warm in the process.
Alaska SeaLife staff members, with the help of experienced Vancouver aquarium trainers and veterinary technicians, have slowly weaned her from her bottles to a diet of clams, capelin and squid. Tazlina already weighs more than 9.35 kg.
As for her swimming skills, when sea otters are little, they mostly float on their mother’s belly, said Nelson – their baby fur functions like a cork and keeps them from sinking. Little Tazlina had to figure out, on her own, how to swim, and has been developing her technique.
“You could actually see her practice diving in her pool,” said Nelson. ”We really didn’t have to do much to encourage her to swim, because she’s very adventurous. She was moved into a larger pool about a month ago and since then has been very active swimming and diving.”
Although Tazlina hasn’t learned to wrap herself in kelp to prevent herself from drifting, as sea otters do in the wild, she does play with the kelp-like thick felt strips that she’s been given as toys. At this point, she’s also capable of sleeping in the water in her “big girl” pool.
The baby sea otter hasn’t met any of her peers thus far. That will change after she arrives at the Vancouver Aquarium, but she has to get here first.
“This little lady was flown here in a transport kennel, by cargo plane or private aircraft, with a veterinarian and highly skilled, experienced staff,” said Nelson. “She was closely monitored to make sure she didn’t get too warm.”
Water spray and ice service were administered during the four-hour journey. The plane was maintained at a comfortable cool temperature for the pup, and cabin pressure was kept very low for the transport.
After settling into a private nursery at the Vancouver Aquarium, Tazlina will slowly be introduced to the older sea otters already in residence. They’re playful creatures that do a lot of energetic wrestling, so she’ll need to be a comparable weight before she meets her new friends.
Taz is bound to be a hit with Aquarium visitors.
“Any time a baby otter comes in, it’s very exciting. They’re amazing and adorable little animals,” said Nelson. “She’s cute – she’s got quite a personality. It’ll be fun to watch her explore her new habitat. People get very connected to seeing a young sea otter come through.”
The Aquarium only has Northern sea otters, which are a different sub-species than the Southern variety. Protected as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, Northern sea otters have made a huge comeback off the shores of Southeast Alaska and Vancouver Island. As a keystone species that keeps the kelp-eating sea urchins and other invertebrates in check, sea otters are important to the ocean ecosystem. They eat the equivalent of a quarter of their weight every day.
Northern sea otters were once widely found all over the North Pacific Rim, from northern Japan to Russia, Canada and the U.S., but, by the start of the 20th century, the maritime fur trade had reduced that number to a mere 2,000. The North Pacific Fur Seal Treaty of 1911 included sea otters and protected the species somewhat. A management plan between countries led to further efforts, beginning in the 1970s, with the United States Endangered Species Act of 1973 and Canada’s Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk, signed in 2002. There are also anti-intentional capture provisions in Russia and Japan.
British Columbia’s sea otters are descendants of 89 Alaskan sea otters that were relocated by government biologists to the west coast of Vancouver Island between 1969 and 1972. By 2008, their population had ballooned to 5,000 and at this point, estimates suggest that number has climbed to 6,000. The B.C. sea otter population is protected as a “threatened” species by the federal government’s Canada Fisheries Ac, and the BC Wildlife Act.