On Monday morning, as rainy weather soaked San Luis Obispo County, a commercial fisherman found a baby otter all by itself in the waters off Morro Bay, according to the city of Morro Bay.
The fisherman called the Morro Bay Harbor Patrol, who called senior environmental scientist Mike Harris of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Harris told The Tribune in a phone interview Tuesday.
Harris joined members of the Harbor Patrol and authorities from The Marine Mammal Center to find the pup, which the fisherman spotted south of the boat launch ramp, and begin the search for its mother.
“In Morro Bay, anytime we have a separated pup like this, the ideal outcome is to pair it up with its mom,” Harris said.
The female pup was only about 2 days old, Harris said.
The team recorded the pup’s cries and used a Bluetooth speaker to play the vocals in hopes of finding the mother, Harris said. When pups and mothers get separated, they cry out to each other in order to find each other again.
“Every otter we saw, we’d stop, they’d see us and we’d get some kind of reaction for the vocals,” Harris said.
The team passed about three or four otters before they came up to the group of otters near the South T Pier — about a mile away from where the pup was found.
“Within a minute, we started to see a female showing some interest in the vocals and quite quickly started vocalizing back and approaching the boat,” Harris said.
With the pup’s mother fast approaching, Harris and his team considered all the options to get the pup back to its mother.
The first option was to place the pup in the water and then back away — but it wasn’t viable, Harris said. The boat was in a tight spot between the pier and other docks and boats.
“We didn’t have an option to back directly away from the mom that was approaching,” Harris said. “We would’ve had to kind of back out of there in a way that we weren’t making a greater distance from the mom. We were concerned we would spook her.”
Option No. 2 was to use a long-handled dip net to hold the pup and place it by its mother, but “I’ve seen females that have gotten really spooked by the appearance when that large net is held up and held over the water towards them,” Harris said.
So Harris went with what he thought was the quickest — and safest — option: gently tossing the pup out in the water to its mother.
“Pups at this age have natal pelage, which is essentially a life jacket,” Harris said. “They can’t dive until they shed that natal fur at about 12 weeks of age.”
He added that he was right there with a net, ready to pick up the pup if anything went wrong.
The mother behaved skittishly at first, but “quickly cradled the pup and swam back to a group of otters,” according to a news release from The Marine Mammal Center.
Harris said there are usually a handful of these types of cases every year in Morro Bay.
“Storm events can cause these separations,” he said. “The mom has to forage for food, so she dives and the current is strong, or the wind is strong, and that can put the floating pup quite a distance from mom.”
In this instance, he added, the pup’s separation was likely caused by the recent stormy weather.
“In the case of Morro Bay, where we have these strong tidal currents, tiny pups can move quite a distance,” Harris said.
If you see a sea otter or other marine mammal in distress, Harris recommends calling The Marine Mammal Center’s 24-hour hotline at 415-289-7325.