Preparing for the Day We Hope Never Comes

As part of my job at Defenders, I continue to learn about the myriad tools we all have to help make wildlife management work in good times, and during crises like oil spills. I made a commitment after the heart-breaking BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico to be a better citizen by becoming a certified Wildlife Sea Otter Responder. Recently, on a clear, crisp, cold Saturday, about 40 of us gathered in a windowless training room to spend the day with trainers from International Wildlife Research (IWR), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Sea Life Center and the Alyeska/SERVS to get a first-hand look at what it takes to be a certified responder.

Sea otters are unique among arctic marine mammals since they rely on the thickness and distinctive make-up of their fur, rather than blubber, to keep them warm or cool and dry. They live in sea-ice covered coastal areas and spend considerable time floating on their backs, often eating shellfish or nursing and caring for their pups that, unlike the young of other aquatic mammals like seals, cannot swim when first born.

Most of us hope we never get that call to respond, because doing so would mean heartbreak and tragedy for sea otters, other marine life and coastal communities.

Sea otters require very specific round-the-clock care when oiled. Their survival and return to the wild depend heavily on certified Wildlife Sea Otter Responders both knowing their jobs and doing them correctly – the first time and every time.

The IWR team that leads these trainings includes scientists, veterinarians and wildlife specialists with expertise and real world experience in the care and rehabilitation of oiled wildlife. In fact, many of them are actual veterans of the infamous Exxon Valdez Spill in Prince William Sound in 1989. IWR has provided expertise for preparing and executing oil spill response operations for sea otters and other marine and land mammals for over 15 years.

Karla Dutton and vet tech Willow are demonstrating the proper taping technique to put on XL-sized protective equipment.

As I embarked on the 9-hour training, I was struck by not only the complexity of the course, but also the very real and serious commitment I was making by being there. After much coffee, careful listening to lectures and participating in a number of team problem-solving sessions, we were deemed ready for any oil spill emergency that might come our way. As a result, I now have my certificate and am on the national register of first responders.

The course and the online training and exam are well worth your time if you feel motivated to be part of a group who could be called in to help wildlife in an oil spill someday. Most of us hope we never get that call to respond, because doing so would mean heartbreak and tragedy for sea otters, other marine life and coastal communities. But 40 more people are now prepared if the phone rings.

Learn more about sea otters and what Defenders is doing to protect all wildlife  from the threat of oil spills.

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