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Once Near Extinction, Sea Otters Survival Rates Boosted By Extensive Research

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(Big Sur, CA)
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

(jump to video)

As dawn breaks on the rugged Big Sur coast, you can't help but think of a military operation. A mobile surgical unit is ready to swing into operation. There are divers off shore divers wearing the rebreather suits favored by navy seals because they produce no bubbles.

Tim Tinker a sea otter expert with the USGS's Western Ecological Research Center  responds to an otter sighting relayed by radio.

TINKER: They are trying to line up on a possible target. We refer to targets as being desirable animals that we want to recapture so there is a female with one of the instruments that we want to recapture in a kelp bed just off shore.

About three thousand sea otters live in California waters. Tinker and his team want to know why that population has been declining in recent years despite efforts to protect the endangered otters.
0125JR OTTERS 1aTINKER: One of the reasons that you may have heard us refer to them as sentinel species  is because they reflect local conditions, and we have taken advantage of that by comparing them from Alaska right down here to Califonia and that is because there are really good reflectors of what is happening in the local near shore environment.
Tinker says  Not only do sea otters not stray far from shore, they don't stray far period. It turns out  sea otters are hyper local, eating, breeding, and dying all within 15-30 mile area.
TINKER:   And what our study is doing is taking a random sample of animals here in Big Sur , this relatively pristine environment and studying them for a three year period intensively, and compare that  to another random sample that we have collected around Monterey peninsula, right off shore of the Monterey aquarium and cannery row.
About a mile away,  on top of a hill with a panoramic view of the coastline,  Caroline Cummings, focuses a telescope. She has spotted a group of about ten sea otters which  have tied  themselves to a kelp bed and are resting face up.
CAROLINE CUMMINGS: Pursuit, pursuit, this is Caroline,

RADIO: Come in Caroline

CUMMINGS: Just wanted to let you know that one of the pups is awake and being kind of squirrelly.
0125JR OTTERS 1bCummings  works with the  United States Geological Survey sea otter research division.  She has been watching and listening intently to radio signals being broadcast from one of the otters which has a small transmitter in its abdomen.
With the information the spotter has provided the divers capture two otters with a device called a Wilson trap.  
The divers were aiming for the radio tagged female and her pup. Back on shore Tim Tinker says they missed.
TINKER: Keeping track of your animal when it doesn't have flipper tags and there in a group of animals is very difficult. So these guys got two animals, we were hoping it was the right one, but that turns out to be ok because we still want some blood samples and other tissue samples.
On shore the first step is to administer general anesthesia so the researchers can conduct their work quickly without fear of the otters fierce teeth.
Overseeing the vetererenary team who work on the otters simultaneously is Mike Murray, veterinarian from the Monterey aquarium. Sea otter research is one of his passions; he has performed surgeries in Alaska and remote parts of Russia.
MURRAY: I think our safety record rivals many species including humans. I've done thousands of  anesthetic intervention on sea otters, and I don't need all of my fingers to count the times I've had a mortal problem. But we recognize that we are in fact taking a risk, but we feel that the data and studying the system that they live in, is worth taking the risk.
As the sun sets on Big Sur, the researchers complete taking samples from the two captured otters. One of the divers wades into the surf and opens the box containing one of the otters.
DIVER: As soon as the water is as calm as it can be we open the top and she swims off.   
Watching the otters swim off to find their mates, the researchers here say that this has been a good day. The data gathered here will advance human understanding of ways to protect this fragile species from extinction.
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