Chapter 2: Less than Ideal Rescue

“As an adult sea otter, she would spend most of her life in the ocean, but, as a pup, she was completely dependent on her mother to survive, in water or on land. Where was her mother? Why didn’t she respond to her pup’s calls for help?”

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It was 6 AM on 10 June 2010 at Cayucos Beach just north of Morro Bay, California. The day before, the temperature hit 70°F. It was clear and sunny in the morning but cool winds picked up a little as the day passed. This was shaping up to be a fine morning.

What was the weather like when the pup stranded?

Out for an early walk, a beachcomber made a surprising discovery. On the wave-licked sand was the sea otter pup, crying for her mother.

A watery world was all the pup had known. Only days old, this was likely the first time she had ever been on land. And the beachcomber was likely the first human she’d ever seen.

See where the pup stranded

The pup sat bewildered, not far from the shore. Each new wave formed a moving barricade, a liquid hand shooing her away from the water.

Even if there had been no waves at all, she couldn’t return to sea because she couldn’t swim. So she just cried.

Sea otters range along the California's coast

As an adult sea otter, she would spend most of her life in the ocean, but, as a pup, she was completely dependent on her mother to survive, in water or on land.

Where was her mother? Why didn’t she respond to her pup’s calls for help?

Picture a defenseless mound of fur that was small enough to fit in your outstretched, cupped-together hands.

Sea otters roll for a lot more than fun

What would happen to this pup without help?

Most people wouldn’t wait around to figure out the answer. How could anyone resist trying to help this incredibly cute pup, a newborn, who was all by herself in the wild?

The beachcomber—officially called a private citizen, or PC, by marine mammal rescue experts—took action. 

The PC peered offshore and saw no other sea otter. She picked up the pup and waded in to put her back into the water 

At this age, the sea otter pup could only float—not swim. So even after a few tries, she simply kept washing back ashore.

There is no question that the PC tried to do well, but this action could have cost the pup her life. And then, the PC made a much bigger mistake.

The PC grabbed the pup again, but this time, left the beach with her.

Heading south of Cayucos Beach, the PC drove to The Marine Mammal Center’s triage facility in Morro Bay. Surely they would know what to do with a tiny baby sea otter.

Get to know sea otter biologist Karl Mayer

The trained volunteers at The Marine Mammal Center immediately recognized that the pup was in serious danger. They carefully admitted her and called another member of the marine mammal stranding network – the Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The phone call broke some terrible news. “We don’t want individuals taking a pup off the beach if there’s a possibility that the pup could have been inadvertently separated from the mother,” said marine biologist Karl Mayer, the Animal Care Coordinator for SORAC. The odds for this pup just got slimmer.

See where the PC brought the pup

Stranded pups have very little time. They simply can’t live on their own. And the younger the pups, the more dangerous the time apart from their mothers.

The clock was ticking for this pup. But that wasn’t the worst news.

Sea otters are not always easy to spot

The best chance a lone sea otter pup has for survival is to reunite with its mother. In the last ten years of sea otter rescue, only 10 to 15% of stranded pups got this chance. 

This may not seem like a high number, but considering the risks and realities of marine mammal rescue, it’s impressive that reunification happens at all.

Without further care, very few pups survive that aren’t reunited.

Other marine mammals share the water with sea otters.

Sea lions, comical and precocious, leap from the water using their front flippers to swim and to walk while on shore. Lumbering elephant seals, weighing a couple of tons each, dive several thousand feet below the surface.

Learn how to tell the difference between a sea otter and a seal

Shy on land, harbor seals scoot along the shore like inchworms, but find their courage and curiosity in the water. Blues, humpbacks, grays, and other whales migrate up and down the coast while dolphins and porpoises patrol and chase down schools of fish.

Dolphins jump through the waves along the coast A sea otter takes a swim by a dock full of sea lions

Compared to all these sleek relatives, sea otters are the newcomers to the ocean, arriving only about 5 to 7 million years ago.

However, that doesn’t mean that sea otters’ kin are more evolved for a life in the ocean, especially an ocean that is so heavily impacted by humans. As it turns out, most marine mammals need occasional help.

If she had immediately contacted a beach official or wildlife rescue hotline, the PC could have summoned a trained response team to the beach.

At the end of a protected bay, Cayucos is known to have a high number of female otters with pups. So strandings in this area are common.

Local responders are trained to investigate reports of stranded animals and to determine the best course of action to save them. In addition to training, the responders have knowledge of the area and proper equipment.  They would likely know a mother’s call for her pup amidst the din of gulls and waves.

How to help a sick or injured marine mammal

Now, unfortunately, too much valuable time had been wasted and the pup’s best hope for survival in the wild was gone.

A stranded pup is rescued

While it is possible to reunite a sea otter pup with its mother after human contact, the same does not hold true for all animals. If the scent of humans is detected on a harbor seal pup, its mother may reject it.

This is another reason why responders tell you that the best thing to do if you ever encounter any animal that appears sick, injured, or stranded is to give it plenty of space and contact the right help.

Watch the rescue of a juvenile sea otter

The responders were in a very tight position.

The Marine Mammal Center helps rescue sea otters, but they don’t have the facilities to care for them. They specialize in the care of seals and sea lions.

A harbor seal pup needs rescue

So, the closest place that could possibly care for the pup was the Monterey Bay Aquarium, nearly a hundred miles north.

But was there enough time to get the sea otter pup there alive? And if she survived the trip, would she be strong enough to be saved?

Welcome to Monterey
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Who would you call if you found a stranded marine mammal?

Be ready to help. Locate the Marine Mammal Stranding Network member nearest you on the map below and program their emergency number into your cell phone. In addition, most cities have a local wildlife rescue organization with trained responders. Search the web for the one nearest you.

View Marine Mammal Stranding Network in a larger map

To learn more about marine mammal rescue visit the Marine Mammal Center online.


On To Chapter 1 « Return to Slideshow

Special Features

This Page All

Chapter 1: The Ocean is Cold but Mom is Warm

Chapter 2: Less than Ideal Rescue

Chapter 3: Emergency Treatment

Chapter 4: Species in Danger

Chapter 5: No Substitute for Mom’s Cooking

Chapter 6: The Surrogate

Chapter 7: Furry New Friends

Chapter 8: Release

Chapter 9: A Wild Sea Otter

Cayucos Weather Report


Storms can cause inadvertent separations between sea otter pups and their mothers. Taking a look back at the weather can give a clue as to if this was a likely factor or not.

The Morro Bay Fire Department is the closest weather reporting station to Cayucos Beach. It provided the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service the data in the chart above.

The chart shows that 9 June 2010 had a high temperature of 70°F and a low of 48°F. The 10th hit a high of 64°F and a low of 47°F.

Norm Hoffmann, chief meteorologist for central coast TV stations KION and KCBA, looked over this data to see if there was anything out of the ordinary.

“It says to me that there were some low clouds at the coast during the night and morning hours, but the 9th was probably mostly sunny and the 10th had some low clouds and fog,” said Hoffmann. “I also checked a few other stations along the coast, and they were cooler on the 10th than the 9th. So, I suspect there were more low clouds on the 10th than the 9th. There was no precipitation recorded on either of those days. So, no rain, which is typical. Sometimes there is drizzle, but not recorded.

“I checked the buoy that is about 30 miles to the northwest of Morro Bay. I checked for June 9th and 10th, and it shows that the mean wave direction was 310°—so northwest was the primary direction—at about 5 to 8 feet, which is not unusual for the summer northwest wind pattern. However, there were a few times that did record a south swell of 1 to 3 feet. So, I suspect there was some south swells, but the dominate swell was northwest.”

There wasn’t a storm or rough seas during these two days. And the wave and weather conditions weren’t unusual for this time of the year.

It’s impossible to say for sure that weather and wave conditions weren’t a factor, but this is where these animals live. It seems improbable that this caused the pup to lose its mom.


Map: Cayucos, California

View Map: Cayucos in a larger map

Otter 501 was rescued on Cayucos State Beach. It is located on California’s Central Coast, several miles north of the Marine Mammal Center in Morro Bay.

Range and Population Distribution of Southern Sea Otters

For southern sea otters, this 2012 map shows their range, running from the north of Santa Cruz down south past Point Conception.

The map also shows their population distribution up and down the coast. For example, if there are 10 sea otters along a 500 meter stretch of coast, then it appears on the map in red. Monterey and Pismo Beach show high densities of sea otters.

Map source: USGS

Video Clip: Sea Otters Rolling

While it is true that sea otters have the thickest fur of all mammals, this dense coat doesn’t cover every square inch of their bodies. A sea otter’s head and paws are not insulated as well. So, sea otters will try to keep them dry when they can—even when rolling.

Interview: Introducing Sea Otter Biologist Karl Mayer

Meet marine biologist Karl Mayer, the animal care coordinator for the Sea Otter Research and Conservation program (SORAC) at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who had a very important role in the care of Otter 501.

Map: Morro Bay, California

View Map: Morro Bay in a larger map

After 501 was rescued on Cayucos State Beach, she was taken to the Marine Mammal Center in Morro Bay for a short stay.

Video Clip: Looking through a Viewscope

It can take a little skill to spot a sea otter offshore, mixed in with kelp. Take a look for yourself through a viewscope used by sea otter trackers.

Evolution Timeline for Marine Mammals

Of all the marine mammals, including dolphins, whales, and seals, the sea otter belongs to the group that moved from land to water most recently. The timeline shows when each of the four different groups of marine mammals made this important transition. As a result, marine mammals that have been at sea longer have had more time to adapt, so they look less like land creatures than marine mammals that more recently made the plunge.

Sea Otter, Seal, and Sea Lion Comparison

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Video Clip: Dolphins Play in the Surf

Sea otters aren’t the only marine mammals that you might see off the coast of California. But, it definitely helps to have a sharp and watchful eye. You never know when a wave with surfing dolphins will appear out of nowhere, and then disappear just as suddenly.

Sick or Injured Marine Mammals

Sea otters aren’t the only marine mammals that sometimes strand on the shore. Seals, sea lions, and even dolphins and whales can become sick or injured. What’s the best thing for you to do if you come across one of these animals? Well, the Marine Mammal Center has put together eight steps that you can take to help keep yourself and the animals as safe as possible:

1.      Don’t Touch and do not pick up, pour water on, or feed the animal!
They are wild animals and can bite. They also are easily stressed by humans.

2.      Do not return the animal to the water.
Seals and sea lions temporarily “haul-out” on land to rest. Harbor seal mothers often leave their pups ashore while they’re feeding at sea. A beached whale, dolphin, or porpoise should be reported immediately.

3.      Observe.
Observe the animal from a distance of at least 50 feet. Keep people and dogs away.

4.      Describe.
Note physical characteristics such as size, presence of external earflaps, and fur color. This helps us determine the species, and what rescue equipment and volunteers are needed.

5.      Condition.
Note the animal’s condition. Is it weak and underweight? Are there any open wounds?

6.      Identification.
Does the animal have any obvious identification tags or markings?

7.      Location.
Determine the exact location of the animal in order to provide accurate directions. We cannot rescue an animal if we cannot find it!

8.      Call the Marine Mammal Center with as much information as you have! Our Response Hotlines are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


In Mendocino through San Mateo Counties:
(415) 289-SEAL (7325)

In Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties:
(831) 633-6298

In San Luis Obispo County:
(805) 771-6298

In the Field: Pup Rescue

When a six- to eight-week old sea pup strands on Del Monte Beach in Monterey, a team, headed by Karl Mayer, comes to the rescue.

In the Field: Juvenile Sea Otter Rescued

During another sea otter rescue, Karl Mayer and his team find a ten- to twelve-week old juvenile injured by a shark.

Map: Monterey, California

View Map: Monterey Bay in a larger map

Situated between San Francisco in the north and Los Angeles in the south, Monterey is a harbor city at the southern edge of the Monterey Bay. Otter 501 was taken to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to be saved.

In the Field: Harbor Seal Rescue

With all marine mammal strandings, it is very important to keep your distance, not just to avoid getting a severe bite. For some animals, like a harbor seal pup, its mother could be out feeding, and if she returns and smells a human scent on the pup, then she will abandon the pup. Let only trained personnel handle marine mammals, like this harbor seal pup that was rescued.