Infant sea otter dies after attempted rescue

Kalsea the sea otter. Photo courtesy of Matt Van Daele.

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Jeanne Friel was enjoying a recent Saturday morning walk on Kalsin beach with her dog shortly before noon. It was unseasonably warm on April 9 in Kodiak.

“My little dachshund growled, and usually when she growls, it’s- I’m immediately looking for a bear. But she ran out in front of me and stopped at this little furry pile on the beach. And it moved, and I called her back and went up and there was this little sea otter,” Friel said.

Otters on the beach are not uncommon. Often they are mature and sometimes lifeless. She knew right away that something was amiss with the young animal. There was no visible blood or injury, but the otter was listless and its mom was nowhere in sight.

Friel called her friend, who in turn contacted Sun’aq tribal biologist Matt Van Daele. He directed her to call the stranding hotline for the Alaska Sea Life Center, while he notified members of a Kodiak response team. The Sea Life Center greenlighted the recovery less than two hours later, and Van Daele was on his way.

“There are a lot of cases in which folks will see a sea otter pup on the beach. And it’s completely normal, the mom just left it there, and she’s going to come back for it,” Van Daele said.

The Sea Life Center gets many calls that describe that situation- in the overwhelming majority of cases, the mother is off hunting and the baby will be just fine. But occasionally, sea otter mothers will abandon pups that are sickly or have a middling chance of survival.

“When I got there on the scene I was able to see that it was a very, very small pup. And this was a you know… she was right up in the rack line of the high tide and there was something wrong,” Van Daele said.

The pup was lethargic when Van Daele arrived, and ravens and eagles were harassing it. At this point the mother had been away for hours and was unlikely to return. The recovery team swaddled the female pup, and brought her to a vet clinic in town.

The Sea Life Center in Seward agreed to admit her. Alaskan Airlines was contacted to fly her out and a flight was arranged for Sunday morning.

In the meantime, Van Daele and his team were caring for the sea otter, now named Kalsea, at the clinic – its first in a decade.

“She started really perking up picking up a lot. We were very, very hopeful and optimistic. And then about four or five in the morning, just started getting kind of lethargic or thinking, ‘oh, you know, maybe she’s just finally relaxing and sleeping it off,” Van Daele said.

Van Daele left at midnight, and returned the next morning to bring Kalsea to the jet for her flight to Anchorage.

“We saw, I think it was probably in association with a softball tournament, but you know, a school bus pulled up. And you know, all the kids got out. And so we went and had a chat with the air cargo folks like, ‘hey, you know, maybe you can have the pilot make an announcement that they’re sharing the flight with a very special passenger and to send her some good vibes, because the flight is the most stressful part for her,” Van Daele said.

But it wasn’t to be. Kalsea did not survive the one-hour flight. What ultimately killed her is unknown, though a necropsy has been ordered.

There is a positive side to the story; the system in place for this rescue couldn’t have worked any better than it did.

Coordinating air transport, veterinary care, a rescue team, getting approval for the rescue- these aren’t things that can typically be done on three hours’ notice. While most apparent standings are simply sea otter mothers leaving their babies alone to secure a meal, that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t report them.

The 24-stranding hotline for the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward is 1-888-774-7325.

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