Call her Olive, the miracle mom.
Olive, a 4-year-old California sea otter, has amazed researchers by becoming the first sea otter not only to survive a dunking in oil but then also go on to deliver a healthy pup.
"It's really remarkable. What we can learn from her, from this whole story, is incredibly valuable," said Dr. Bill Van Bonn, director of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. "This is not a commonplace occurrence at all. It's great news."
Olive's odyssey began in February 2009 when she washed up on Sunset State Beach near Santa Cruz covered in sticky black tar. The oil did not come from a tanker spill; it leaked naturally from underground reserves off the California coast. She just happened to be in the wrong place when the oil bubbled up, as it periodically does.
Beach-goers found her emaciated, dehydrated and exhausted, and turned her over to the state's Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz. Scientists there coated her with olive oil, which helps loosen the tar, and then washed her in Dawn dish soap. They also named her, partly after Popeye's pal Olive Oyl and partly for the olive oil that saved her life.
This was important, they said, because no sea otter in California had ever survived an oil spill. Unlike other marine mammals, otters have no blubber, so any damage to their coat can cause hypothermia. Worse, they're likely to ingest the toxic sludge when they try to groom it off. So an oil spill, even a natural one, is probably fatal.
The state Fish and Game staff trumpeted her recovery, even setting up a Facebook page for the frisky mammal. As of Thursday she had 2,071 "likes." Colleen Young, an environmental scientist with the state's Department of Fish and Game, was the lucky staffer who got to monitor Olive. Young tracked Olive's whereabouts, habits and general health, until the big day when researchers brought Olive in for a check-up in July.
"She was pregnant," Young said. "We couldn't believe it. We were very excited."
Last Friday, Young spotted Olive lolling about the kelp forest with a whiskery little baby on her belly.
"To see she had carried the pup a full term, and they both seemed healthy ... It just felt great," Young said. "I felt lucky to be a part of all this. She's showed that rehabilitating oiled wildlife does work."
Some have argued that rescuing oiled wildlife is a poor use of resources because the animals often don't survive, and almost certainly can't reproduce. Few studies have been conducted on the reproductive rates of oiled wildlife, which is why Olive's story is so important, Van Bonn said.
"No one ever has the resources to follow up with these animals, but Olive was unique," he said. "So this is just great news. It's awesome."
The state scientists don't plan to name Olive's pup, but her fans on Facebook have made a few suggestions. Top pick: Pimento.