On a recent Thursday, Otto skipped his $12 seafood breakfast to prepare for surgery.
The 8-year-old southern sea otter was poisoned by exposure to toxic algae, likely after eating a batch of crabs. Toxic algae forms in warming ocean waters and produces a neurotoxin called domoic acid. This neurotoxin concentrates as it moves up the food chain, and it can cause seizures in marine animals and humans. During the winter of 2015 to 2016, domoic acid poisoning shut down the commercial crab season for more than four months.
This year, the number of sea otters stranded on California beaches is up considerably, says Mike Harris, a sea otter biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"We're on pace in 2017 to break some new records for live strandings and carcasses recovered," he says.
Scientists still know very little about how domoic acid affects sea otters off the California coast. But in Otto's case, a recent MRI showed damage to the hippocampus, which affects memory and navigation. Otters use these functions to find their way in the open ocean.