Photo credit: ©Monterey Bay Aquarium, photo by Tyson V. Rininger

Pup 719 is the 10th stranded sea otter pup Shedd has provided a home to since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

The pups were pulled nearly lifeless from oil-fouled waters in Alaska or picked up, alone and crying for their mothers, on beaches in Prince William Sound and up and down the California coast. They’d been orphaned, abandoned, or just somehow separated from mom. Thanks to public awareness and extraordinary rescue efforts, they lived, and through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they came to Shedd, one of the few U.S. aquariums and zoos with the space, staff and expertise to rehabilitate and raise infant sea otters.

This year, wildlife experts are bracing for record numbers of southern sea otters, both adults and pups, to strand on California beaches as one of the most powerful El Niños in the last six decades continues to wreak havoc on global weather patterns.

Unusually warm Pacific Ocean temperatures associated with El Niño caused severe storms with rough seas along the California coast in January, which may have been a factor in Pup 719’s stranding. Her rescuers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Otter Program suspect she was separated from her mother by high waves that swept her away and washed her ashore.

On Jan. 6, when the pup was found on a beach in Carmel, California, a Monterey Bay Aquarium sea otter expert walked up and down the shore with the agitated but otherwise healthy little otter cradled in his arms, scanning the crashing waves for any distressed adult otters that might be her mother. If mom were in the vicinity, she would recognize her pup’s piercing cries and possibly swim to shore to retrieve her. But no otters responded, and the pup, too young to survive on her own, was taken to Monterey Bay Aquarium and admitted for care as “719,” the 719th rescue in the aquarium’s otter program.

The pup might have been paired with one of the aquarium’s adult female otters in a unique technique that employs surrogate mothers to raise stranded pups for release back into the wild. Because a surrogate was not available, the next option was to find a qualified permanent home for 719. That was Shedd, and Pup 719 became the third rescued southern sea otter pup we have taken in from Monterey Bay Aquarium. What she is teaching us about her subspecies can help inform management decisions for protecting her counterparts in the wild.

Pup 719 with animal care team
Photo credit: ©Monterey Bay Aquarium, photo by Tyson V. Rininger

While all sea otter populations were decimated by the fur trade until receiving protection under the International Fur Seal Treaty of 1911, southern sea otter populations have been exceptionally slow to recover. Today’s California sea otters are descendants of a lone colony of about 50 animals discovered near Big Sur in 1938. Even with additional protection under the federal Endangered Species Act and state wildlife laws, southern sea otters have struggled to survive and are listed as threatened on the federal endangered species list. The latest annual population count by the U.S. Geological Survey put their numbers at 2,944 in 2014, barely an increase over 2,939 animals in 2013.

Sea otters face a host of manmade threats including land-based diseases in runoff, increasing competition from the fishing industry for food and the ever-present possibility of a major oil spill. Now add El Niño. In addition to driving the storms that have pummeled the southern California coast, stranding, injuring and even killing sea otters, El Niño’s high water temperatures can kill kelp, which not only provides sea otters with habitat but is also a mainstay in the diet of one of their most important prey animals, sea urchins.

Southern sea otters are a keystone species in the Pacific coast kelp forests, so as the health of their population goes, so goes the health of their ecosystem. But this year, El Niño is turning that upside down as its heated waters and furious storms put both southern sea otters and their ocean habitats at dangerous risk.

Learn more about Pup 719 and read about several of Shedd’s other rescued sea otter pups. You can also help support our top-quality care of sea otters and all the animals at Shedd by symbolically adopting an otter.

Karen Furnweger, web editor