Pups Learn To Make It At Sea

California Sea Otter Population Shows Decline

When Katie Hawkins slips into her wet suit, she becomes a surrogate mother, working in California to save a vanishing breed: the sea otter.

ItÂ's an unusual experiment, and as 48 Hours Correspondent John Blackstone reports, Hawkins is trying to teach one special orphaned otter the basics about marine life: swimming, fishing and diving.

"I can feel his body, as heÂ's getting so excited," Hawkins says. "HeÂ's eager to start his swim, cause weÂ're entering his world and he knows that," she says. "TheyÂ're just breathtaking to watch."

In her care is a 4-month-old orphan named Doc. Hawkins says he probably lost his mother in a powerful storm along the California coast.

"Usually at the beginning of a swim, he will stay pretty much by my side," Hawkins continues. "We both will go down and dive together. So he knows my rhythm, I know his rhythm."

"WeÂ'll bring up urchins. WeÂ'll try to find crabs," she says.

Katie Hawkins
Hawkins and her contemporaries are teaching Doc the routines of sea otter life, so in a couple of months he can make it on his own.

Until this sea otter rescue program began, pups without parents would usually perish. In the wild, otter mothers would teach the hunting skills crucial for an animal that eats 25 percent of its body weight everyday.

At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, otters Hailey and Goldey have grown to adulthood. When they were first rescued as orphans some 15 years ago, nobody knew how to teach an abandoned sea otter pup the skills needed to survive in the wild. So Hailey and Goldey have remained in confinement, where getting a good meal doesnÂ't mean going hunting.

But the survival of the species may require getting orphans back into the ocean: California sea otters are disappearing.

"Every little animal counts, to get it back out there in the wild," says researcher Michelle Stedler, who tracks otters on the water and from the air.

"The numbers are down. TheyÂ've been dropping since Â'95," she notes.

Veterinarian Mike Murray says the declining number of otters makes his work more critical than ever before: "There certainly is a decline in the population that weÂ're seeing," he says.

"I donÂ't think weÂ're gonna be able to hang our hat on any one particular problem. Is there a food limitation out in the bay right now? Is there an infectious disease?" he asks. "Is there a toxin?"

To figure out whatÂ's happening, researchers capture wild otters to check their health. But otters are so smart that catching them can be a challenge. Divers with traps sneak hrough the kelp forests where otters rest, then move in for the capture. The captured pups then go to Dr. Mike MurrayÂ's medical trailer for a surgical implant.

Doctors apply a radio transmitter.
"[We] put [on] one of these radio transmitters with a battery life of about two years," Dr. Murray explains. "We put it here on the back side of the abdomenÂ….[It] doesnÂ't bother them a bit. Apparently, I guess, in veterinary medicine we have the limitation we canÂ't ask them."

But with the transmitters, Dr. Murray says, the otters will give them a variety of health-related information. "It gives the pulse rate, one pulse for every second."

Young otters may hold the key to the mystery, according to Stedler. The birth rate has remained constant, but fewer pups are growing to adulthood.

Someday Stedler will also track Doc, the orphaned pup receiving swimming lessons from his surrogate mother, Hawkins. Once Doc learns enough, heÂ'll get a transmitter, too. And the researchers who saved his life will keep watching him as they hunt for answers to save sea otters.

"You just hope and pray that they can find the food out there and they survive," says Hawkins. "So when I see them just swim away, its like, Â'Ah yes, they donÂ't need us.Â' ThatÂ's what our goal is, [for them] to not need us."