My Unforgettable Moment with Mae, the Sea Otter Surrogate Mom from the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Mae, southern sea otter mother
Mae, Surrogate Sea Otter Mom from the Monterey Bay Aquarium

I am very sad to hear of the passing of Mae on November 17, 2012. Mae was one of southern sea otters in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Exhibit. I first met Mae 11 years ago when she was named “199.” She did not have a “real” name yet, because the hope was that she would someday be released back into the wild. Mae was picked up as a 2 day old orphan from Santa Cruz, California.

I still remember the dark and foggy Monterey night on my volunteer swing shift when I held Mae in the palm of my hand. She was only days old, and probably only weighed a few pounds. My hands are petite sized, so she really was tiny!

I had made her “clamshake” formula earlier, and I fed it to her in a warmed human baby’s bottle. I supported the back of her head with one hand while I held the bottle to her mouth with the other hand. Mae guzzled the formula down quickly, and the white formula dribbled down from her mouth and onto her soft brown fur. Sea otter fur is so soft and dense (up to 1,000,000 hairs per square inch versus 100,000 hairs on a human’s entire head!) because the water in which they live is so cold (around 50 degrees Fahrenheit year round).

I placed Mae in the water trough next to her haul out, and cleaned her fur the best I could through my disposable latex rubber gloves. Sea otter pups cannot sink, so there was no fear of me letting go and her falling to the bottom of the tank. I dried her with bath towels, and groomed her with brushes or combs. I forgot why I picked her up, but as I held her, she nuzzled her tiny muzzle into my hand. In that moment, I knew that the hundreds of smelly tanks I had cleaned as a volunteer was worth it!

Peering through my dark welder’s mask, I could barely make out the black eyes and nose that a sea otter has. Human caregivers in the Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program, or SORAC, wear welder’s masks so the pups can’t make eye contact, and wear a large black poncho to disguise their human shape. The idea is to keep sea otter pups from bonding too strongly to humans, and stop them from interacting with humans when released back into the wild. Now the sea otters themselves are the surrogate mothers!

Mae was the first sea otter to raise a previously orphaned pup on exhibit. “207,” later named Toola, was the first sea otter surrogate mom in SORAC’s history. Her first surrogate pup, “217” is still alive in the wild, and he is even a territorial male! Talk about a second chance at life!

Holding Mae in the palm of my hand, I had never felt so close to any animal before. This tiny and frail sea otter needed me at that moment as much as I needed her. It was proof to me that all beings on the planet (furred, scaled, or human) are invariably connected whether we acknowledge it or not. I do not know how long that moment lasted, but it is etched in my memory for a lifetime.

For more on Mae, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Blog

For more about sea otters, check out my post, 10 Amazing Facts About Sea Otters