There are few stories more touching than that of a mother-and-child reunion, and there are few animals more beloved than otters. So when these circumstance are combined, hold on to your heart. Fortunately for the otters of Morro Bay, California, the dedicated environmental scientists and biologists of the Marine Mammal Center are looking out for their best interests.
On Feb. 5, 2019, a team of rescuers from the Center and its partners at California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) managed to successfully reunite a lost southern sea otter pup with its mom. That day, a member of the public reportedly saw the stranded baby animal and called the Center’s rescue hotline. A crew of trained staff, including Mike Harris, Senior Environmental Scientist and Sea Otter Biologist at CDFW, managed to rescue the pup, who he estimated to be 2 days old or less. Harris and crew then boarded a Morro Bay Harbor Patrol boat to look for mother otters in the area. PEOPLE spoke to Harris about this special rescue and reunion mission.
According to Harris, a boat owner and commercial fisherman spotted the pup floating at the surface of the water, as wind and currents kept pushing it up against rocks. There were no adult otters seen in the immediate area. Luckily, the female baby “appeared healthy, no obvious wounds or trauma. It was alert, at least as much as a pup at that age is, [and] responsive to touch. Based on the depressed level of vocals, I suspected it was tired and hungry,” says Harris.
Harris tells PEOPLE that the rescue team then recorded the pup’s vocal calls, with a plan to play the pre-recorded baby otter noises in hopes of catching the attention of its rightful parent. The rescue team headed to a known resting area for otters in Morro Bay, seeking out the baby’s mother.
“Mom and pup vocals are thought to be very distinctive, [which] allows the pair to reunite regularly when mom comes up from foraging dives,” Harris explained. As luck would have it, one female otter in particular responded to the pup’s vocals. (Mother otters typically only have one baby at a time; twins are rare.)
“There were probably 20-25 females in the group with mom. Although many of them reacted to the projected pup vocal, only mom started moving and vocalizing back to the pup,” says Harris. At that point, Harris safely tossed the buoyant baby otter to its mother. While the tossing action may come as a surprise, the rescuer had multiple reasons for doing so. For starters, he didn’t want the mama otter to be frightened away by boat noise.
“There were factors influencing the decision to toss the pup to mom rather than set it in the water and move away,” Harris tells PEOPLE. “We were on a fairly large boat tucked in between a large pier, docks and other boats. I felt it would have been challenging to maneuver the boat directly away from mom and the other close by otters without causing significant disruption that could cause a ‘fright-flight’ response. I also wanted to be close enough to quickly net the pup out of the water if needed. With the tidal current and wind conditions, I felt this was the safest and most controlled way to separate the pup from the boat and get it to a position mom would approach.”
Harris also tells PEOPLE that the decision to toss the pup to its mom was a safe choice in terms of the baby’s well-being. “Pups are born with a special fur, we call if natal pelage, that is extremely insulating and buoyant,” he says. “It’s so buoyant that pups can’t submerge or dive to follow mom until they’ve shed this natal pelage. Otters shed most of this natal pelage around 10-12 weeks.” Thus, there was little danger the otter pup would sink or get hurt by a gentle toss into the water.
Although there hasn’t yet been an update on the duo since the reunion on Monday, Harris says the fact that the mother recovered the pup and took it back to the group of female otters is very a positive sign. “Southern sea otter mothers typically stay with their newborn pups for 8 months during this critical stage of their life.”
The pup was not fitted with a satellite tag for post-release monitoring. The welfare of this mother-daughter pair is particularly important because the species, also known as the California sea otter, is currently listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. While it’s estimated there was once hundreds of thousands of them in the coastal Pacific waters, as of the Marine Mammal Commission‘s latest count, there were only around 3,000 otters left and their historical range has seriously dwindled.
“The positive outcome of the reunion was made possible by good cooperation between our organizations,” says Harris. “A quick response, boat support and experience with sea otters all played a role in giving this newborn female pup a chance to survive in the wild.”
For more otter news, check out this recent story about how some of these threatened animals are ending up as illegal pets due to Facebook wildlife traffickin.g.
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