Oregon Coast Aquarium loses one of its beloved sea otters

Oregon Coast Aquarium loses one of its beloved sea otters
Photo courtesy of the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

NEWPORT, Ore. - The Oregon Coast Aquarium lost one of its sea otters this week.

Aialik, a 14-year-old northern sea otter, was euthanized on Wednesday. He had a failing urinary tract that had caused him problems for much of his life and his condition had recently worsened.

The aquarium sent the following release about the loss:

The staff of the Oregon Coast Aquarium sadly announce the death of Aialik, a northern sea otter who was “big brother” to the Aquarium’s sea otter family.

Aialik was humanely euthanized Wednesday morning, March 6, at the Aquarium’s veterinary care center because of a failing urinary tract that affected him for much of his 14 year life. In fact, Aialik was the subject of a pioneering surgery to treat the issue. This was the first time anyone had attempted a bladder marsupialization in a marine mammal, in which an artificial opening allowed the bladder to function and drain.  This successfully extended Aialik’s life for several years.

Jim Burke, Director of Animal Husbandry for the Aquarium, explained, “The Aquarium’s founding veterinarian, the late Dr. Steven Brown, had performed this surgery before on livestock. He spent over a year consulting with sea otter experts across the globe to determine if this treatment would help Aialik before performing the surgery in collaboration with Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.”

In early summer 1998, a fisherman noticed a sea otter pup floating alone near the Aialik Glacier in Alaska. After several hours of observation, and no sign of the pup’s mother, he brought the pup on board and handed him over to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Suffering from dehydration, the pup was transferred to the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward, Alaska for emergency care. When his health recovered one week later, Aialik [named for the glacier near where he was found] boarded a plane bound for his new home at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

Aquarium staff worked around the clock to bottle-feed and groom four pound Aialik. He was the first otter the Aquarium staff raised from nursing age. As he grew, handlers taught him how to eat solid food, groom himself and eventually swim. Several of those original handlers were by his side Wednesday morning.

“He loved to drag artificial kelp out of the pool and roll up in it like a burrito,” said Ken Lytwyn, Curator of Marine Mammals for the Aquarium. “He would sit there and slowly rub the strips on his face until he fell asleep. He left such a big impression on everybody who worked with him.”

Throughout the years as young sea otters were introduced to the Aquarium, they immediately gravitated toward Aialik. “He was like their big cuddly uncle,” Lytwyn said. “Aialik would let them crawl all over him. They would take naps in one big dog pile.”

Aialik earned notoriety for being the first ever sea otter subject in an olfactory, or sense of smell, study. His ability to detect just a hint of scent surprised some researchers, who thought that marine mammals did not have highly developed senses of smell since they hunt under water.

“We were fortunate we were able to treat him with the best possible animal care available.  Aialik was a beloved member of our Aquarium family and he will be deeply missed,” said the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s CEO, Carrie Lewis.

The Oregon Coast Aquarium accepts donations to the Animal Care Fund to help treat Aquarium animals with special needs like Aialik. Burke said, “We do go to extreme measures to improve quality of life and give the best possible care.” The Animal Care Fund continues those efforts to provide care to both Aquarium animals and wildlife rehabilitation. Information regarding donations to this fund is available by contacting the Aquarium at 541-867-3474 or donations@aquarium.org.