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Sea otters are the smallest marine animals. And otters are different from other marine mammals, such as seals, and whales, because they depend only on their fur to stay warm in their cold ocean home. Their fur keeps them warm by trapping a thin layer of air next to their skin, even when they are diving underwater. 
 
Sea otters' fur keeps them warm by trapping a layer of air next to their skin. 

The Problem
What would happen to a sea otter if its fur were coated with thick, black oil? 

Oil tankers--ships that sometimes carry millions of liters of oil--sail up and down the Pacific coast from California to Alaska. The tankers pass right through sea otter habitat. 

If an oil tanker wrecks, oil spills into the ocean, threatening otters and other creatures. My friends and I began some research to answer two questions: 1) How does oil affect sea otters; and 2) can otters be cleaned and returned to the wild, if they become oiled? 

We discovered that when a sea otter's fur was oiled, the fur can no longer hold the protective air layer. Without this air layer, the otters could not stay warm and would eventually die. 

We needed to find a way to clean oiled sea otters so that the air layer could be restored. 
 
A rescuer holds a baby sea otter. 

Cleaning Otters
We put a little bit of oil on sea otters and then tested different kinds of detergents to see which one worked best to remove the oil. After many tests, we discovered that Dawn dishwashing detergent worked best. 
But, even after the fur was clean, it took several days for the air layer to return to normal. The otters had to stay in a rehabilitation center until the air layer was restored. Only then could they be returned to the wild. 

With this new information, we felt a little more confident about saving oiled otters. However, we did not know that saving sea otters required more than just knowing how to clean them. 

A Tragic Test
Then disaster struck. On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling more than 41 million liters (or 10 million gallons) of crude oil into the ocean. 

My friends and I rushed to Alaska and quickly organized a rehabilitation program for oil sea otters. Little did we realize how huge the problem was or how long we would be there. 

Those early days after the spill were some of the hardest of my life. Oiled and injured otters arrived at our make-shift center day and night. We didn't have enough room or equipment to hold and treat large numbers of animals. I felt like we were operating a field hospital in a war zone. 

In the first week we received over 50 sea otters. Most of the early animals died immediately, right in front of us. We could do little for these poor animals. We all felt very sad , upset, and frustrated. 

Otters that didn't die as soon as they arrived showed signs of low blood glucose and dehydration. Luckily these were symptoms we could treat along with cleaning their fur. 

Soon we were saving more and more animals. But, where could we put all these otters until their air layers were restored? 

We built large pools and holding pens as quickly as possible, but it was obvious that this should have been done before the spill. 
 
 
After being treated at a rehabilitation center, a lucky sea otter is returned to the ocean. 

After three months of hard work by more than 300 volunteers, we were able to save about 200 oiled otters out of 357 that were treated at the rehabilitation centers. However, an estimated 5,000 otters may have died because of the spill. We learned a lot from this terrible accident. 

Important Lessons
New laws now required detailed plans about what to do in case of another spill. 

In Alaska, oil companies now have rehabilitation centers and supplies that are immediately available. 

Also, my friends and I train volunteers. If another spill happens we now have trained people ready to respond within hours, not days or weeks. The first few days are the most crucial time for saving oiled animals. 

But even with the best plans, large oil spills may be more than we can handle. Many otters, seabirds, and other marine animals will still die. What can we do? 
 

Challenge 

Save an Animal Near You!

Join with friends, and visit an animal shelter. Choose an "Animal of the Month," and try to find it a good home. You can make posters of your animal, write descriptions, and contact local newspapers or television stations. Include the phone number of the shelter so people can call and ask about the animal you selected. 

I believe that in some wildlife areas, we should not allow people to drill for oil or to ship oil. Some wild areas are simply too precious to risk. Prince William Sound may be one such area. 

Sharing the world with wildlife and recognizing that humans cannot have it all may be the best way of protecting otters and other creatures from oil spills and other human threats to their existence. 

Randall William Davis is a marine biologist at Texas A&M in Galveston, Texas


 
 
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