Sea World's sea otter specialists are holding a 24-hour vigil over the sole survivor among five Alaskan sea otters rescued from oily Prince William Sound and brought to San Diego last week after the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Like the four that died from hypothermia and ingesting crude oil, the last otter is suffering from liver damage. But it has started to regenerate the natural body oils that help keep its fur waterproof, and no other otter has recovered enough to do this, park officials say.
No one is sure exactly how good its chances are for survival. Senior animal care specialist Nolan Harvey says: "She's not out of the woodwork yet. We still have a long way to go."
But with more than 20 animal care specialists, curators and veterinarians at Sea World providing round-the-clock care, General Curator Jim Antrim is optimistic: "It's on the way back. It's heading in the right direction."
In addition to the battery of experts working in San Diego, a team of Sea World Research Institute scientists are heading otter-cleaning efforts in Valdez, Alaska. Both ends have laid important groundwork in the event of another oil spill, which in California could seriously endanger the local otter population, estimated at about 1,000.
Five years ago, Sea World Research Institute scientists Dr. Randall Davis and Dr. Terrie Williams tried to clean oiled otters with various commercial cleansers and special grease removers. Their breakthrough discovery: liquid detergent and water.
Their research also involved developing techniques for capturing, sedating and monitoring the animals but the contingency plan their findings resulted in was not actually implemented until the Exxon Valdez spilled more than 10 million gallons into the once-pristine Prince William Sound.
Since then, more than 100 otters have been brought to a recovery center in Valdez but more than 50 have died, according to Bruce Batten, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage.
"Not more than 10% to 20% of those oiled otters that we have recovered alive are we expecting to survive, and that's with all the care we can give them," he said.
Trip Too Stressful
Five otters plucked from the sound were flown to Los Angeles and trucked to San Diego last Monday where they received extra attention, but wildlife authorities do not expect to send any more. Travel has proven too stressful, Batten said, and a new facility that can hold up to 120 recuperating otters has been built at Valdez.
New information gathered from watching the five otters sent to San Diego, including regular blood test results, diet habits and other observations, has been sent to the scientists in Valdez. Information has also been relayed between the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, the Point Defiance Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash. and the Vancouver Aquarium.
"It was (initially) presumed that the most significant thing was the de-oiling, was to immediately get the oil off their fur," Antrim said. Later, as the animals deteriorated, the fact that they were suffering from ingesting oil became more apparent.
Several Sea World animal care specialists knew R.V. Chalam, a San Diego toxicologist with a background in veterinary medicine, and asked him for help. An activated charcoal solution was developed and a paste created by mixing the charcoal with water was fed to the otters through stomach tubes, Antrim said.
The Lesson Learned
The solution helps carry through the otters' digestive tracts hydrocarbons in the ingested oil. This means the oil passes out of the digestive tract as waste rather than circulating through the animal and destroying its liver and kidneys, Antrim said.
The overall lesson learned by all this research?
"The first thing is it's not only important to remove exterior oil but if you have the tools, like a charcoal flush, start taking measures against internal oil because that seems to be the more lethal influence," Antrim said.
Meanwhile, the lone survivor at Sea World now weighs about 40 pounds and spends most of her time dining on shrimp, crab, sea urchins and clams, grooming her fur and getting some much-needed rest.