whiffen the injured sea otter

An eight-year-old sea otter named Whiffen remains in critical condition after Vancouver Island beachgoers discovered him 10 days ago. If the animal hadn’t limped to shore near a popular hiking trail, it’s unlikely he would have been found at all.

Vancouver Aquarium staff scrambled to save the baby-faced otter following his discovery, and doubted he would survive the van ride to the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. Whiffen was emaciated and hypoglycemic,with injuries to the hind leg and internal bleeding. Staff members are committed to rehabilitating Whiffen at any cost — which could total up to $30,000 and hundreds of volunteer hours.

Whiffen was immediately placed under 24-hour intensive care. He receives antibiotics and oxygen treatments, underwent surgeries and diagnostic tests, and gets hand-fed every two hours (otters eat about 22 pounds of high-quality seafood per day, including shrimp and crab). Rescue center manager Lindsaye Akhurst says, “We don’t want to get too excited. But, you know, the little improvements, it sure does help us a lot.” The aquarium hopes Whiffen’s condition will improve enough in the next few weeks to release him back into the wild.

The energy and expense dedicated toward saving Whiffen is humbling, but aquarium staff believes it’s worth it. Veterinarian Dr. Martin Hualena points out that rescue efforts provide valuable research and educational opportunities. And with fewer than 5,000 sea otters in B.C., it’s important to save each one. Last October, the Rescue Centre saved another otter named Walter, who was discovered with gunshot wounds that left him blind. Because of his blindness, Walter was moved to the aquarium for long-term care.

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After a bleak history, B.C. West Coast sea otter populations have been growing steadily, but the population remains vulnerable. Their attractive, thick pelts attracted fur hunters, who nearly wiped them out by 1929, and Whiffen and Walter most likely descended from the 89 sea otters brought from Alaska to repopulate Vancouver Island in 1969. Twenty years later, the infamous Exxon-Valdez oil spill claimed the lives of an estimated 3,000 Alaskan sea otters. Conservationists are concerned about the possibility of a similar oil spill near the B.C. West Coast. Just a small amount of oil on an otter’s thick coat can damage the insulating properties that are necessary to survive in cold water. Crude oil lingers in sediment, poisoning the shellfish that otters eat and slowing their recovery.

The Vancouver Aquarium staff knows that otters are more than cute and playful tourist attractions. They play an important role in the marine ecosystem by consuming sea urchins, which eat seaweed. When otter populations were in decline, urchin populations exploded and ate vegetation that other marine life needs to survive.

We hope that Whiffen recovers soon, and thank the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre for their efforts in saving this valuable creature.

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