SEWARD — Just a few office lights illuminated the table covered in PVC pipe and towels where a northern sea otter pup suckled a bottle of formula in Halley Werner’s hands.
Between feeds in the dimness, the tiny puffball spent its time sleeping, playing with toys and swimming in a small enclosure.
The pup is alternately known to Werner, an Alaska SeaLife Center animal care specialist, either as “Homer girl” or “tiny baby” but also “shrimp butt” for the way the pup curls its tail and flippers when in a deep sleep.
The animals Werner interacts with on a daily basis may be adorable, but the work is physically and emotionally draining, she said as she ended a shift at the center last month.
The SeaLife Center, in downtown Seward on the edge of Resurrection Bay, is the only institution in the state authorized to rehabilitate live stranded marine mammals and has a dedicated team that provides around-the-clock care. Other agencies involved in wildlife rescue say the center provides a crucial place to send animals that could otherwise be left to die.
Werner’s job demands long days and a deep connection with animals that either may not survive or more often be released, either to the wild or another facility. As of October, nobody on the center’s small team that responds to stranded wildlife had taken a vacation in nearly a year. The past few months brought 12-hour workdays.
Werner said she’s only recently let her guard down and allowed a connection to form with the animals that may spend just a few months in her care — if they survive the challenges that brought them to the center in the first place.
“It’s hard for me to allow myself to be connected to something that could die,” she said. “I always like to have a little bit of a shield up.”
Center officials last month allowed the Anchorage Daily News to observe operations in areas normally off-limits to the public, beyond popular tide pool exhibits and tanks holding fish, birds and animals for visitor viewing.
One of the otter pups getting TLC in the center’s Wildlife Response quarantine area arrived in early September. Another center staff member happened to witness an orca encounter involving the otter’s mother in the waters near Homer that left the baby animal orphaned and fatigued, and its protective coat damaged.
The pup’s rescue captivated people across the country, but it’s just one of the hundreds of animals that the center has taken in over its 25-year history, including a few others that also made headlines.
Back in 2017, the team spent nearly six months rehabilitating a stranded, 1-month-old Cook Inlet beluga calf named Tyonek. A local pilot volunteered to fly a stranded sea otter pup from Homer to Seward in 2019 after a fire shut down the Sterling Highway. This summer, an orphaned walrus calf arrived after somehow traveling 4 miles inland from the Beaufort Sea to North Slope oil fields; despite receiving constant cuddling and other efforts to nurse it back to health, the calf didn’t survive.
Animals have arrived at the SeaLife Center by vehicle, boat and plane. They are sometimes retrieved by trained volunteers or staff members. Other times, partners assist in transportation and travel logistics.
Since January, the center has taken in 16 animals, including 10 harbor seals; two sea otters, ”Homer girl” plus a pup orphaned in Kenai in early September; two birds; a fur seal; and the walrus. That’s the highest patient intake since 2014, when 17 animals were admitted, according to an online center journal.
Currently, there are only three full-time, year-round staff members on the center’s Wildlife Response Team though the team adds another seasonal staff member and some interns during the busy summer season.
“We sometimes are spending more time at work than we are with friends and family at home,” said Savannah Costner, another animal care specialist. “So it turns into like, this is your family. This is your home ...”
Through it all, though, it’s the animals and co-workers that keep Costner and Werner coming back since their start as interns in 2015 and 2009, respectively.
“We could not function if we didn’t have the team that we have,” Costner said. “It’s super important that you have a team that you know has your back and that will listen if you need to vent about anything. There are hard days.”
On a rainy mid-October morning, Costner and Werner attended to the summer’s last patients: the two sea otter pups and Papita, a blind harbor seal from Seldovia. They gave “Homer girl” a frozen chew toy to help ease teething pain. They worked with Papita to help her find food despite her blindness, tapping a bucket to get her to move toward the sound, and putting a hand beneath her chin to signal a feeding.
“She’s very smart,” Costner said. “She’s picking up on the fact that she’s a blind seal. She’s picking up on the cues of the bucket tap means, ‘OK, I follow that.’ ”
The otters are the center’s most expensive animal to treat. Last year, it cost a little more than $1,100 per day to treat one sea otter pup, according to the SeaLife Center.
Otter pups require constant care until they’re 6 months old as staff try to duplicate the attention a mother would give them in the wild. The young animals need to eat at least a quarter of their body weight every day or they risk going into hypoglycemic shock due to their high metabolism.
Both female otter pups at the center now are improving. The smallest pup has nearly doubled its weight, and its fur, responsible for keeping it buoyant, has been groomed and towel-fluffed daily by staff members.
That little pup rescued from Kachemak Bay likes to think she’s fully grown, Costner said, comparing the animal to a sassy toddler that wants to investigate everything and do things on her own.
“At this point, it’s her world and we’re just living in it,” she joked.
By helping rehabilitate a variety of species, SeaLife Center staff say they’re gaining valuable knowledge and experience that could help in the event of a disaster like an oil spill or mass stranding that leads to numerous animals requiring help.
The information gathered at the center can also give scientists an indication of the health of broader animal populations, said Mandy Keogh, marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Region.
“There is a lot we can learn about these animals,” Keogh said.
As her night shift ended last month, Werner exchanged animal care notes with Costner after one last bottle feed. She peeked over the crib that held “Homer girl” and said a quiet goodbye. Watching from the baby monitor in the office, Costner smiled at the exchange.
It was the last time Werner saw the pair of otters. Last week, the Minnesota Zoo announced the arrival of both pups, now named Denali and Nuka.
“I would hope that (the public) understands just how passionate and just how much we care for these animals,” Costner said. “We give up part of our lives to make sure that they have a better life.”