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An Old Sea Otter’s Final Dive

The art of reconstructing the skeleton to bring a sea otter back to life.
July 4, 2017

An Old Sea Otter’s Final Dive

Every skeleton has its own personal story. In late June 2016, an unexpected carcass washed up that had Hakai scientists excited.

“[BC Parks] told me there was a dead sea otter on Seventh Beach,” said Hakai Institute researcher Erin Rechsteiner. She monitors sea otters in the seas around the institute and immediately recognized the freshly deceased otter as one of the large males that regularly swam in the waters off Seventh Beach.

Scrambling with fellow scientists and Hakai staff, they managed to carry the 90 pound (40 kilogram) sea otter back to the research station over four kilometers of uneven trail. Rechsteiner and her colleagues prepared the carcass for a necropsy (an animal autopsy)* and carefully set aside its bones.

Rechsteiner knew exactly where to send the skeleton—Mike deRoos. Mike wasn’t on Calvert Island when the otter washed up, but he works part-time at the Hakai Institute as a sea otter biologist. He also happens to be one of the world’s foremost experts at articulating marine mammal skeletons.

Mike’s impressive skeletal reconstructions are displayed all over the world, including the 26-meter blue whale skeleton that hangs at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver. Mike recently built another blue whale skeleton to hang in London’s famous Natural History Museum.

“There’s a bit of artistic license. Mostly, I try to be really true to what the animals do in the wild. I want to show them doing something really interesting because when people come and see this, it’s a lot more powerful when it’s active and interacting with other things in its environment,” says deRoos.

Now, after 150 meticulous hours rebuilding the sea otter’s skeleton, the Hakai Institute has its latest work of art diving down the stairwell of the main lodge on Calvert Island. And the otter isn’t the only skeleton in the installation. Between his paws sits the skeleton-like remains from one of sea otter’s favorite foods, a giant red sea urchin.

“He’ll be pretty prominent,” says deRoos. “Everyone as they’re eating their meals will be able to look over and see him collecting his dinner at the same time.”

*Sea otters are listed as a Species of Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act in Canada. This sea otter was handled by trained professionals under possession permit number RR 16-0247 from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

We wrote a more detailed account of the day this sea otter in this previous Hakai blog.