OLYMPIA – It's rare to see a sea otter in Puget Sound these days and rarer still to spot one five miles inland.
But then, "McAllister" is clearly no ordinary sea otter.
Responding to a call from the City of Olympia, biologists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and an area research firm captured the 53-pound marine mammal Monday night five miles up McAllister Creek in an outlet to McAllister Springs.
"When we first got the call, I was sure we were talking about a river otter," said Steve Jeffries, a WDFW research scientist who netted McAllister with the help of John Calambokidis from Cascadia Research. "I've never heard of a sea otter roaming that far upstream."
Named after his adoptive creek, McAllister was transported Monday night to the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, where he dined on six rock crabs, 12 squid and 2 pounds of prawns. Today (Wednesday), having received the results of McAllister's medical exam, Jeffries plans to tag the wayward sea otter and release him into Puget Sound.
"Aside from a few scrapes on his back flippers, he appears to be in good health, said Jeffries, who puts McAllister at 2 or 3 years old. "He's very active."
That's good news to Harriet Allen, endangered species manager for WDFW, which lists sea otters as a state endangered species. They are also protected under the federal Marine Mammals Protection Act.
Having once thrived off the Washington coast, sea otters were wiped out by the fur trade in the 1800s, Allen explained. They were then reintroduced to the state in 1969-70 with 59 animals brought south from Amchitka Island, Alaska.
Today, approximately 600 sea otters live in state waters, mostly along the Pacific coast from Cape Flattery to Destruction Island, although a few are spotted every year around Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands.
"We don't see that many sea otters in southern Puget Sound, and to find one that far upstream is very unusual," Allen said. "This guy must have thought life would be better as a river otter."
There are actually some significant differences between sea otters and river otters, starting with the fact that river otters are much more common and are not listed by the state as a "species of concern." In addition:
- Sea otters are generally larger, weighing in at 20 to 90 pounds, compared to 12 to 25 pounds for river otters.
- The back feet of a sea otter look like flippers; a river otter's do not.
- Sea otters typically feed while floating on their backs; river otters usual feed on shore.
One field guide also states that river otters live in both freshwater and ocean habitats while sea otters "live exclusively in the ocean."
"In this case, anyway, McAllister clearly departed from that rule," Allen said.
Allen asks that anyone who spots a sea otter in Puget Sound call Steve Jeffries at WDFW (253-589-7235) or John Calambokidis at Cascadia Research (360) 943-7325.
"We're trying to monitor these animals so we can keep track of how they're faring," Allen said. "McAllister should be easy to spot: he'll be the one with red and white tags on his back flippers."
WDFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are also seeking information on any sea otters found stranded or dead on the Washington coast. Last year, there were 22 documented cases of sea otters found dead on the beach, said Allen, noting that the causes of these deaths are unknown.
Anyone who finds a stranded or dead sea otter is asked to call USFWS at (360) 753-6048, the U.S. Geological Service at (541) 754-4388 or Jeffries at the number above.