Up close and personal in Wally’s World: Tofino sea otter faces challenges in his new home



VANCOUVER – With acrobatic rolling and somersaults, Walter the sea otter is getting past his disability. 

Blinded after being shot in the face and left for dead in the waters off Tofino, “Wally” as he’s known at the Vancouver Aquarium, may be blind and unable to return to the wild, but he’s got a new lease on life – and a new pad. 

The Westerly News spent some time with Walter on Friday, observing him with a trainer and then watching him explore every corner of his rock-and-glass lined pool of seawater. 

It’s roomier than the small tank he was in at the Marine Mammal Rescue and Rehabilitation, where staff needed access to feed and monitor him, and groom and blow-dry his luxurious fur while he was ill. 

The good news is now he’s on the mend, Walter’s taken over his own grooming. No longer the limp and wounded marine mammal on the brink of death, he looks a little manic, flipping nimbly over and over, grabbing his tail, cleaning it. The frequent diving and rolling and “fluffing” as bubbles of air go through his fur, the way his little front flippers pat every part of his body. 

The constant grooming’s not about vanity; his fur must be clean, unclogged by oils and food particles, to keep him warm and afloat as sea otters don’t have the blubber layer other marine mammals enjoy.  

While top aquarium veterinarian Martin Haulena said Walter’s future looks bright, “he hasn’t solved all of his problems.” 

“He’s not ‘hauling out’ and resting the way we’d like him to haul out,” Haulena said.

Walter’s liver enzymes aren’t looking as well as Haulena would like, either. 

The blinded otter is also expected to exhibit some of the problems of aging, as he’s believed to be between 12-15 years of age, but male sea otters can live into their 20s in the wild, Haulena said.

He’s back to using his repaired teeth well, although he’s missing a few. The loss of two digits from a hind flipper is making him list a little in the water when sleeping.

The goal would be to reintroduce Walter to other otters, although maybe not a “significant otter.” Male sea otters have “super-aggressive” mating habits, and male-female mating dynamics are “complex” to say the least.

Right now, Walter is adjusting to his environment and habitat – a far bigger pond than he’s been in for three months in rehab, but still no ocean.

“His coat looks really good … he’s grooming himself, he’s able to groom every part of his body,” said aquarium head trainer Brian Sheehan as he threw morsels of tender raw geoduck clams onto Walter’s chest. After it runs out, Walter taps his chest. Ahem, more, please.

A reminder of the days when he was digging for geoduck and might use a stone for a tool to smash open a shell? Eh, maybe not. Probably a “superstitious” behaviour.

“At some point he did that movement and got reinforced for it,” Sheehan said. 

The reinforcement comes around regularly. Walter eats a quarter of his weight a day – that’s eight buckets, a 3/2 ratio of surf clams/geoducks and prawns.

Training comes next, and even for a blind sea otter, the possibilities are nearly limitless, Sheehan said. 

“It’s all in the imagination and skills of the trainers involved,” Sheehan said.

The unsighted creature has to learn to respond to “target taps” and present himself at a “station” to be fed and cared for. 

“We brought in trainers familiar with him, he knew their voices, they had a relationship,” Sheehan said, calling the changeover “seamless.”

With Walter, the familiar sight signals don’t work, so it’s tactile and auditory cues.  

A casual observer on the glass side of his tank that’s open to the public can see Walter using a skill he hasn’t done for months – sleeping on his back for his afternoon nap, floating in the water, his tail a submerged rudder, his paws on his chest, his big hind flippers sticking up and out.

When he wakes up again, Walter’s figuratively and literally on a roll. 

He’s propelled forward in a twirling mass of air bubbles by moving his hind end – including his flippers and short, powerful tail – up and down.

His front paws and his nose pad the edge of his domain. 

“You’ll see little bumps here and there – he’s understanding it pretty good,” Sheehan said.

 â€œHe does get disoriented as to what part of the habitat he’s in so we just have to wait for him to reorientate,” the trainer said. 

While sea otters may be the bane of some in B.C.’s shellfish industry, public support has been a loud and unified outcry in support of Walter, said Dr. Haulena. 

“I hear ‘Do whatever you can’ – especially for an animal that’s suffered at the hands of people, an animal that isn’t doing very well, an animal we can help out and turn around.

“Even though we can’t release him to the wild, we can provide a really good home for him. He tells a great story,” Haulena said.

That story? 

“There’s conflict for resources, there’s conflict between humans and animals for resources,” he said.

“(The sea otter) is an animal that belongs here and has been brought back through the efforts of people,” Haulena said.

Researchers say the animals once ranged in abundance from Japan and Russia all the way to California, but were “extirpated” in B.C. and almost everywhere else, only reintroduced in the early 1970s. 

Claims by some the sea otter is an interloper on B.C.’s coast are completely false and “a little weird,” Haulena said. 

“Historical records are very clear and the hunting records are very clear,” he said.

“For whatever reason people have an issue with higher end animals closer to the top of the ecosystem, like wolves, like sea otters … There’s perceived competition for resources,” he said.

He also cites the massive but docile basking shark, once popular for target practice and misunderstood to be a competitor over a misunderstanding over what the mild giants eat.

A healthy environment depends on the sea otter for keeping down sea urchin stocks that devastate kelp beds, Haulena said.

 â€œThey need to be here,” he said.


A few sea otter facts: 

– In 18th century Russia, a luxuriant sea otter pelt commanded 20 times what a sable pelt brought in. They were hunted to the brink of extinction; 2,000 remained in 1911 when a treaty was struck to protect them.

– While a sea otter gets water from his food, unlike most marine mammals he drinks sea water, which is filtered by his superkidneys.

– Each sea otter consumes about a quarter of its own weight in shellfish every day. That’s two tons of seafood a year to survive, per sea otter. Multiply that in a raft of hundreds, and they can definitely clean out a beach. 

– Hungry sea urchins feast on attached kelp at the base, creating barrens on some coastal beaches. Marine mammal experts say a raft of otters can restore balance in a field of sea urchins.

– According to BCSeafood.ca, in 2007 the B.C. harvest of red sea urchins weighed in at 2,200 tonnes for a value of $7 million, way down from 14,000 tonnes 15 years earlier.

– By far the biggest market for sea urchins is in Asia, where their roe may fetch over $100 a pound.

– The sea otter favourite is geoduck clams, the bigger the better. An economic conflict there, with B.C.’s 2007 harvest of 1,600 tonnes bringing in $38 million in 2007 – again, mostly to Asian markets, putting them in the top 3 wild shellfish, along with crabs and shrimps. (Also mother’s milk to sea otters.)

– Don’t believe every Facebook meme about adorable otters holding hands when they sleep. Males and females live mostly separate lives in separate rafts. Mating is brutal, with the male biting the female’s nose to hold her.