In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 2:41 PM on Wednesday, August 31, 2011

KACHEMAK BAY: MARINE MAMMALS ARE OUR NEIGHBORS

In our own back backyard

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer


 

Photographer: McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

Josh Tobin and Dr. Debbie Boege-Tobin, responders with Homer's Marine Mammal Stranding Network, free a sea otter pup caught in a personal-use fishery net.

There are better ways to start a day than being interrupted in the midst of a hot shower by a phone call. Thankfully, my husband, Sandy, took the risk last Friday, knocked on the bathroom door and told me our friend, Craig Forrest, was on the phone. What followed was a graphic reminder of the rare relationship those of us living on the shores of Kachemak Bay share with marine mammals in our backyard.

Craig had arrived in the dim light of morning to check the personal-use fishery net he and Wes Schacht were fishing north of the Spit. Nearing it, Craig saw something other than salmon in the webbing.

"It looked like a rock or a log, but then the 'rock' hissed at me and it was pretty obvious it wasn't a log or the net," said Craig.

Getting closer, Craig saw two sea otters, a female and a pup.

"I couldn't tell if the little one was dead or alive, but then it struggled some and I knew it was alive," said Craig.

The pup's head was wrapped tightly in the net's webbing. Thrashing around, the pup's head had become coated with mud and secured by the net dangerously close to puddles of water. Worried for the youngster's welfare, the female also managed to get herself tangled in the net.

Craig and Wes called local law enforcement personnel who, in turn, notified the Marine Mammal Stranding Network at the Sealife Center in Seward. Help was expected to arrive shortly. Craig wondered if I wanted to get some photos.

By the time I arrived, the youngster was seldom moving and uttering weak cries that pierced our hearts. Soon, Josh Tobin and Dave Eckwert of MMSN also arrived. They assessed the situation and Josh used his cell phone to let his wife and lead responder for the Homer MMSN, Dr. Debbie Boege-Tobin, know the condition of the animals and the equipment needed to free them.

Using a long-handled tool, Josh was able to keep a safe distance while cutting the net and setting the female otter free. She headed for the bay, but stopped frequently to call to the pup.

Upon arriving, Debbie put a plan in place to free the pup. As she secured the head, Craig and Dave secured the otter's back end and Josh cut the strands of net tightly buried in the otter's muddy fur. Karen Corbell, also part of the MMSN team, handed them tools as needed and photographed the operation. Occasionally, everyone stood back, giving Debbie time to evaluate their progress and the pup time to calm down.


 

Photographer: McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

only a few strands of net remain to be cut before the otter pup is free and can return to Kachemak Bay.

Finally, the last string was cut. The pup flipped itself clear of the net and began heading toward the water and its calling mother.

Debbie, who teaches marine biology for Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College-University of Alaska Anchorage, followed at a distance to ensure the female and pup were reunited. Two of Debbie's students, Rachael Rooney and Margorie McCubbins, who happened to show up and are active with MMSN, joined in monitoring the mother-pup reunion.

"We could hear the mom and then a faint whimper back, the mom and another faint cry. It went back and forth, the mom and a faint cry. Then there was silence and I think they were reunited out there in the water," said Debbie. "It was pretty exciting."

Although faced with considerable net repair, the rescue was exciting for the fishermen, too.

"It was a good ending for what could have been a terrible story," said Craig. "I could see from the bluff that they had gotten together and were swimming off."

Later in the day, Karen, who is studying education and biology at KBC and student teaching this semester at West Homer Elementary School, used the carcass of an otter found dead near Seldovia as a teaching tool with fifth-grade WHES students. The otter had been transported to Homer to give scientists an opportunity to better understand the otters of Kachemak Bay.

Karen is a good example of the ripple effect local scientists and this marine environment have on those of us fortunate to live here.

"I was inspired to study biology after taking a marine biology class taught by Debbie in 2004 and began working with MMSN in 2005," said Karen. "The college here is such an opportunity to educate the young of our town with this wonderful resource in our back yard."

Friday was Karen's opportunity to play it forward, arranging for WHES students to view the otter, hear about her involvement with MMSN and meet Debbie. For me, the day was a powerful reminder of the rich environment in which we live, well worth the shortened shower.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.

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