Researchers from USGS, Monterey Bay Aquarium and other institutions recently concluded sailing the Olympic Coast of Washington to study sea otters as part of the Pacific Nearshore Project investigating coastal health. Team members shared their field experiences through journal entries that they sent home regularly.
Opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect those of the USGS.
Pacific Nearshore Project
Washington Expedition – August 6, 2011, Part II
Darcie Larson, Seattle Aquarium
But sea lions are not the marine mammal we're after today: of course we're after sea otters! The Tatoosh's job is to find a place to anchor that will be fairly protected from the wind so that when the divers in the Lucy M or the Blue Dragon bring sea otters to us, it won't be rocking and rolling as we try to get samples from the anesthetized animal. As we waited in the gorgeous sunshine, taking in the rugged beauty of the Washington coast, I was thinking to myself that I sure love my job!
Things got even cooler when the first team of divers came back with not one, not two but three sea otters at one time for us to take samples from!
The otters were brought aboard in their wooden crates. The crates have lids that slide open and the team uses something that looks like a big pillow to distract the otter and keep the “bitey” end away from the researchers’ hands. This way Dr. Mike (veterinarian Mike Murray of the Monterey Bay Aquarium) can safely administer the drugs which will put the otter right to sleep.
Project chief Jim Bodkin of USGS (left) measures the girth of a sedated sea otter, while Dr. Shawn Larson of the Seattle Aquarium (center) and Dr. Mike Murray of the Monterey Bay Aquarium (right) prepare other measurements.
The crew has the sampling and tagging down to a pretty slick process, I was impressed watching as Dr. Mike, my colleague Dr. Shawn Larson, and other team members quickly weighed and measured the sleeping otter and took samples. I was pretty excited when they offer me the job of "fur sampler" and I plucked a few hairs from their plush coat and put them in a little envelope.
This was the first time I had ever actually felt the coat of a live otter which was pretty exciting for me. Being an interpreter at the Seattle Aquarium I get to feel sea otter fur all the time, but it's from a pelt of an otter that died long ago. Their thick coats have 1 million to a half million hairs per square inch. Imagine a circle the size of a quarter -- now pack hair from three people's heads into that circle, and that's about the density of sea otter fur. And I got to witness something first-hand that I tell people at the Aquarium all the time -- that the undercoat of the otter stays dry. The outer guard hairs are wet but the downy undercoat was completely dry!
Releasing the otters after this is all done is my favorite part.
After Dr. Mike administers the drug that wakes them up it only takes a couple of minutes for them to start to stir (they are back in the crate at this point, you definitely don't want them stirring while they are still being examined!). Then they move the crate to the swim step on the stern of the boat so it's very easy to tip it gently on its side, slide open the lid and out the otter goes. Sometimes they pop up right next to the boat and look back at you, probably wondering how they ended up there. Then they swim away like nothing happened.
Researchers release an examined sea otter back into the coastal waters of Washington.
An post-exam sea otter swims off into to depths.
The work didn’t stop when we get back to our basecamp sometime around 8:00 pm. There are samples that need to be processed, dive gear that needs to be washed, and dinner needs to be made to feed the hungry researchers. After cleaning up the dishes (there are twelve people to cook and clean for so it’s a group effort!), it’s time to get to bed for a few short, precious hours of sleep to prepare for the next day!
Darcie Larson is the interpretation coordinator at the Seattle Aquarium. She is collaborating on outreach and education efforts for the Pacific Nearshore Project.
Expedition photos courtesy of Darcie Larson and the Seattle Aquarium.
The Pacific Nearshore Project is a multinational, multiagency project investigating sea otters as health indicators of coastal waters and marine resources from California north through Canada and Alaska. The project is led by the U.S. Geological Survey with key research partners from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Seattle Aquarium, University of California, University of Idaho, University of Wyoming and California Department of Fish and Game. For a full list of sponsoring agencies, research blogposts, otter photos, please visit the project homepage at http://on.doi.gov/nearshore.