California's ambassador for oil-affected wildlife, Olive the sea otter, has died from a shark bite, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).
CDFW documented the otter's road to recovery on its Facebook page, "Olive the Oiled Otter." It shared the sad news of Olive's death to her 5,000 followers Thursday afternoon.
Olive first made headlines in February 2009 when she was found covered in oil on Sunset State Beach.
A local team helped the 1-year-old otter recover by putting her in a pool of warm softened fresh water — a new protocol at the time. Olive's fur regained its natural waterproofing much faster than it would have in saltwater, indicating this was a good method of treatment.
The biologists also made sure to care for her while they wore special costumes, so that she wouldn't recognize humans and look to them for food and care.
“They kind of looked like Darth Vader costumes,” Young said. Specifically, the costumes involved large black capes that shrouded the shapes of the biologists' bodies and welding mask-like helmets that hid their faces.
Within several weeks, Olive's fur and weight were back to normal. The team equipped her with a VHF transmitter and colored flipper tags so she could be monitored after she returned to the wild.
Mid-February was the last confirmed sighting of Olive. On March 22, CDFW received an email from a citizen who found her dead and decomposed. Biologists with the department said they found wounds on Olive that indicated she was bitten by a white shark.
"We also found a large, serrated tooth fragment from a white shark in one of the wounds, which confirmed our suspicions that she was bit by a shark," said Colleen Young, CDFW wildlife biologist, who collected Olive's carcass for examination.
(Photo of shark tooth taken by California Department of Fish and Wildlife)
White sharks don’t eat otters — the bite was likely an "exploratory bite" to see if the animal was something it would want to eat. Otters rarely survive these bites, according to CDFW.
"Shark bites are currently the leading cause of mortality of southern sea otters, and we've documented an alarming increase in shark bite mortality over the last five years," Young said.
(Photo: Olive checks out the boat team while awaiting transport to the DFG mobile lab.)
Olive was believed to be 7 to 8 years old when she died. Typically, a female would live into her mid-teens. She had at least three pups after being rescued in 2009.
"We owe Olive a lot because she gave us a lot. She showed us that with our newer methods of washing, rinsing and recovering oiled sea otters, even very sick, starved and badly tarred sea otters could be saved," said David Jessup, the retired CDFW wildlife veterinarian who oversaw Olive's initial washing and rehabilitation.
Most important, Olive taught researchers that it is worth the effort to try to rehabilitate oiled animals.
“In the past there has been speculation that oiled animals die shortly after they are returned to the wild, that they won’t continue to thrive," Young said. "Our ability to follow Olive and document her success has really shown that that's not true."