The southern sea otter is the white knight of the Pacific Coastal ecosystem. In an ocean threatened by the ravenous kelp-ravaging hunger of a growing horde of sea urchins, the clever and noble otter is among the only marine creatures which are willing to eat these spikey, radially symmetric jerks. And because otters eat A Lot, the urchins are kept in check, and the kelp forests survive to serve as a home to an entire flourishing web of life.
There was a time when we had hundreds of thousands of otter sentinels, stretched all along the Pacific coast, keeping the forests healthy and generally being adorable in the process. Then, in the 18th century, Russian fur traders discovered them and, with typical Muscovite subtlety and restraint, killed All Of Them.
Or so they thought- for a small packet of a few dozen otters survived and, through conservation programs and hunting bans, their numbers started to rebound. Just in time, it turned out, to get in on the high water mark of our coastal polluting craze. And since otters eat darn near anything, and particularly bio-toxin accumulating filter feeders, they concentrate in their bodies all of our worst industrial excesses. Critically sensitive to pollution, the growth of the otter population levelled off and in some areas began to drop. If they were to survive, some human heroes would need to pull off some super-human feats of endurance.
Luckily, such humans exist, one such being Sandrine Hazan. She is a Senior Animal Care Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program. She was born in 1978 in Montreal to French Moroccan parents, but moved at a young age to Los Angeles, where she grew up. Now, while generally LA is the place that whimsy and curiosity go to quietly die, Hazan had the benefit of a school system with a strong outdoors component, and a father who would watch Discovery channel documentaries and Mr. Wizard reruns with his nature-loving daughter.
Regular trips to the California coastline, and in particular a life-defining field trip to the tidepools of Catalina Island, all formed a leitmotivic pulse in Hazan’s early life, pulling her slowly towards a career in marine biology. It’s hard not to see the strong strand of Fate in her story. After graduating in 2000 from UCSD with a Biology degree in Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution, she ended up as a Marine Science Instructor in the very program at Catalina Island that had had such an impact on her early life.
I went with my school on one of those trips in fifth grade, and it stays with me still as one of the most memorable parts of my childhood – taking the boat out to Catalina Island, setting up experiments, taking trips to tidepools, and spending three days doing nothing but learn about nature, the interconnectedness of species, and our impact on all of that. It’s the sort of program every child should have access to, and I’m happy to say, it is very much still around!
Then came the crossroads – there are so many options in pursuing a career working with marine animals, and any step you take towards one limits what those options might be. Hazan knew that she had a hands-on nature, and wanted to work directly with animals, and so chose go to school to pick up a degree as a vet tech, WHILE volunteering at UC Santa Cruz’s Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Laboratory, WHILE working in an animal clinic. The workload was staggering, but, as she says, “That’s the age to take on those sorts of loads.” She worked primarily with seals, sea lions, and elephant seals, assisting in cognition, sensory, and behavioral research to probe the boundaries of these animals’ mental experience of their world.
It was a hectic routine that filled every conceivable hour, the sort of exhausting but purposeful life awaiting anybody who wants to make a career of animal conservation. Hazan is a strong advocate of volunteering at local wildlife centers and research institutes for anybody in high school or college looking towards an eventual career in ecology or wildlife conservation, a bit of advice that really can’t be said often enough.
After finishing her studies in 2006, she took up work with the Marine Mammal Center as a supervisor for their San Luis Obispo satellite operation, as part of their marine mammal rescue team. It was magnificent experience but, as part of a field headquarters, her work was primarily in capturing the injured animals and then sending them along to a hospital for their actual care. She wanted to be more involved with the process of rehabilitating the animals, and so when a chance came to work with Monterey’s Sea Otter Program in 2008, she snatched it.
The program is astounding. They have taken upon themselves the massive responsibility of rescuing injured otters all along the California sea coast, providing around the clock medical care, developing rehabilitation techniques that include otter foster parent mentoring which allows for an eventual return to the wild, and regular tracking of the otter population’s progress and developing hazards. It’s important work because of the otter’s position as a keystone species – as the crucial animal keeping the urchins from making the rich kelp beds of the Pacific Coast into “urchin graveyards.”
And it’s exacting work. The night shift runs from 6 at night to 2 in the morning, and if you have a new wounded otter in critical care, once you get home, you rack your brain continuously for more things that can be tried that might help the otter’s recovery, checking in constantly for progress updates – pretty much anything but sleeping. And then, with the day shift, Hazan and her team aren’t only maintaining the otters they have, but going out on rescue missions, organizing the army of volunteers that the program needs to get its massive job done, working with the otters in the rehabilitation program, and participating in Monterey’s educational programs to teach the coming generation about what they can do to help reduce the pollution levels of the sea. Talking with her, it’s apparent that Hazan is, at any time, juggling roughly a dozen different aspects of her job as a sea otter biologist, any one of which would be seemingly full time work.
It is an all-consuming task, trying to protect a species from the massive man-wrought gears that are attempting to grind it to extinction. It would be the most understandable thing in the world if Hazan, and the rest of the Sea Otter Program team pushing resolutely and blearily onwards, felt like giving up under the immensity of the task. But when I asked her if she plans on working somewhere else in the future, she said, “I can’t picture myself doing anything else. In a way, this is the Grand Slam of jobs. I get to work with incredibly adorable, interesting animals. I get to teach. I get to do exciting rescue missions. I’m in an incredible facility doing cutting edge research.”
What more can one ask from life than that?
SO YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Here is a great place to learn a bunch of simple things that anybody can do to protect otters and marine ecosystems. Then you can head over to The sea otter program’s website to read all about the work being done to protect this important species. And then, if you want to see some truly fluffy adorable things intermixed with some truly sad things, take a look at the documentary “Saving Otter 501” – now available for streaming on Netflix!