The newborn female sea otter pup is cuddled by a member of the Alaska SeaLife Center’s Wildlife Response Program. Photo courtesy of ASLC

A newborn female northern sea otter pup orphaned when her mother died in an attack from orca whales off the coast of Homer is now in the care of the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) in Seward.

The attack was witnessed by Natalie Hunter, an ASLC lab technician who was on a recreational fishing trip with friends, and who often works with the center’s wildlife response team.

The incident, reported by ASLC on Monday, occurred on Sept. 9, according to ASLC staff.

Hunter and her friends said they were excited to spot two wild orcas and that the boat captain had shut off the motor to observe from a distance. The group on the boat did not know this was a pod of transient orcas known to predate on mammals. The mother otter did not attempt to dive away from the whales and the group realized that the otter was carrying a pup when they heard the characteristic young otter calls.

Multiple attacks from the orcas ensued, and the mother otter and her pup burst out of the water after a tail slap from one of the orcas. Mother and pup were separated and the orcas focused their attention on the mother, Hunter said. 

Eventually the mother otter did not resurface and the orcas began leaving the area, but persistent cries from the water indicated that the pup had survived the attack.

Bottled feeding time for a newborn orphaned northern sea otter pup rescued from the waters off of Homer. Photo courtesy of ASLC

“Her cries were gurgly, and when we got her out of the water, she was soaked,” Hunter said. “Her coat wasn’t repelling water and keeping her buoyant like it should have been.”

Once the ASLC got permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to respond, Hunter and others got the newborn otter out of the water and onto their fishing boat.

The group made their way back to shore, while tending to the pup, then connected with the ASLC Wildlife Response team halfway between Seward and Homer, which is about a two-hour drive. The pup was transported back to the center.

An initial exam found that the pup was fatigued and hungry, but otherwise appeared to be in good health. A fresh umbilical cord confirmed that the pup was only a day, or possibly hours, old.

Jane Belovarac, curator at the center, said that it is rare that the wildlife response team knows how an orphaned young sea otter ended up in the location where it was found. 

“For most reported cases of an abandoned sea otter pup, we have the reporter watch for a length of time to see if the mother returns,” she said. “In this rare case, we know exactly what happened to this newborn pup.”

This is the second orphaned otter pup admitted to the ASLC in less than a week. As northern sea otter pups receive constant care and attention from their mothers until they are about six months old, both of these orphaned pups are under 24/7 care.

The pup who survived an orca attack that killed her mother is now being cared for at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. Photo courtesy of ASLC

ASLC reminds the public that before approaching an injured or stranded marine animal in Alaska to call the 24-hour Stranded Marine Animal Hotline at 1-888-774-SEAL (7325).
The Alaska SeaLife Center’s Wildlife Response Program provides care for stranded and injured marine animals with help from corporate sponsors and individual donors. ASLC receives ongoing support of the Wildlife Response Program from supporters like ConocoPhillips Alaska, Marathon Petroleum Corporation, PetZoo, Partners 4 Wildlife, Matson, GCI, and a number of individual donors, funds, and foundations such as Stanley J Williams Fund, Mesara Family Foundation, and the NC Giving Fund.