Sea otters, extinct on the Oregon coast since the early 1900s, have returned to the state through the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Visitors can learn about sea otters’ natural behaviors from Aquarium interpreters stationed at the exhibit.
Sea Otters: Currently there are three sea otters living at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Aialik (pronounced eye-AL-ik and named after an Alaskan glacier) is a 69-pound male northern sea otter, Adaa (pronounced AH-dah and meaning “move over”) is a 40-pound male northern sea otter and Hunter is a 55-pound male southern sea otter. All three nuzzle, nibble and play with their enrichment toys throughout the day, and usually can be seen swimming during their regular feedings. Their diet consists of shrimp, pollock, crab, butter clams and surf clams, along with supplementary vitamins. When the sea otters reach adulthood they may weigh between 50 to 100 pounds.
Aialik: In early July 1998, when Aialik was only about one week old, he was found abandoned near Ketchikan in southeast Alaska. The Oregon Coast Aquarium was notified by the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward of the sea otter's situation and agreed to take over his care. He was flown to Newport from Seattle on July 16, 1998 with the generous help of Mountain States Construction. Because Aialik was a baby when he was first found and had not learned foraging skills from his mother, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed him nonreleasable. Aialik is lucky; according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, once a baby sea otter is taken from the wild it cannot be returned. Their policy dictates that orphaned animals that cannot find homes in zoos or aquariums must be euthanized.
Adaa: On January 13, 2000, when Adaa was approximately six months old, he was found wandering on an airport runway in Port Heiden, in southern Alaska. When rescued, he was starving, suffering from hypothermia and would likely have perished if authorities had not intervened. According to officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, Alaska, the little sea otter became stranded by sea ice and was forced to travel across the ice and adjacent land in search of open waters in which to forage. He was picked up on the airport runway after pilots and other airport personnel expressed concern that incoming or outgoing aircraft might injure him. After his rescue, Adaa was transferred to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, where he received emergency care. The Aquarium was notified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about his situation and immediately agreed to provide him with a home. Adaa arrived at the Oregon Coast Aquarium on January 20, 2000.
Hunter: In February 1998, when Hunter was one week old, he was rescued by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program (SORAC) after washing onto Carmel Beach in California. It is believed that he became separated from his mother during heavy surf conditions. After Hunter was stabilized, he began his rehabilitation for eventual release back into the wild. After his release, SORAC monitored Hunter and observed him successfully foraging and socializing with other sea otters. Unfortunately, he also sought out kayakers and received small pieces of squid from fishermen. Because of these encounters, Hunter had to be removed from the area several times, then re-released farther away. No matter where he was released, he found his way back to areas of high human activity. Finally, when he was approximately 18 months old, SORAC and government officials decided that for the safety of the public and Hunter, something had to be done. After learning of Hunter’s situation, the Oregon Coast Aquarium agreed to provide him with a new home. Hunter arrived at the Oregon Coast Aquarium on March 6, 2000.
Collaborative rehabilitation: Aialik, Adaa and Hunter, along with other stranded and injured marine animals, are playing an important role in rehabilitation. Through direct communication with zoos and aquariums across the country and around the world, sick or injured animals that previously had little hope of surviving are being saved, and in some cases re-introduced, into the wild.
Working collaboratively with the Seattle Aquarium, Sea World/San Diego and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Oregon Coast Aquarium received the latest information about caring for infant and young male sea otters. This practical information was extremely useful to husbandry staff and is one reason that the Aquarium’s sea otters have responded so well. These cooperative relationships with zoos and aquariums are crucial for the successful rehabilitation of marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles and other marine animals.
The exhibit: The main sea otter pool holds 68,000 gallons of seawater. Exhibit water is filtered at a rate of 1,800 gallons per minute, or 2.6 million gallons daily. The rocky pool is 12 feet deep at its deepest. Surrounding it are haul-out beaches, where a sea otter can leave the water for areas both visible and not visible to the viewing public. A swim-through tunnel, nooks, crannies and logs provide the otters with exploration opportunities. Five vantage points offer the public both above-water and below-water views.
An additional holding pool in a nonpublic area behind the exhibit holds 9,500 gallons. This pool is used when the large pool is being cleaned or maintained, and for wellness care, medical attention and special feedings.
The care received:
Water quality—Every 40 minutes, all the exhibit's water runs through high-rate sand filters and an ozone filtration system. Water quality is monitored daily, and weekly bacteria counts are taken to ensure that bacteria levels are within stringent government guidelines.
Diet-A sea otter's diet at the Aquarium consists exclusively of fresh-frozen food fit for human consumption, including shrimp, crab, and clams. Annual cost per animal: $11,000.
Medical and wellness care—Each animal is routinely weighed to make sure it is maintaining ideal body weight, an important element in the animals’ overall health.
Marine mammal enrichment program—This innovative program combines environmental enrichment devices (toys) and human interaction, to keep the curious sea otters mentally as well as physically fit. Keeping the otters engaged and healthy is an important aspect of animal care. To help provide a stimulating environment, diverse enrichment devices are introduced into the exhibit. Boat bumpers, buoys, a whirly hose, a children’s play gym and even beer kegs are added to the exhibit to make them more interactive. Frequently toys placed behind the scenes are retrieved by an otter and then pushed around the pool. In an aquarium environment, an otter's surroundings must be as dynamic as possible to maintain good physical and mental health. The Aquarium’s animal staff randomly rotates the toys in and out of the exhibit to prevent boredom. It is important to make sure the toys are always fun and exciting.
Other toys include PVC pipe fittings and pieces of plastic car wash strips (to manipulate); ice blocks containing clams and other food bits (to chew and manipulate); extra-sturdy plastic balls, plastic milk crates and trash can lids (for manipulation); a stream of water from a hose (to play with and swim through); and periodic feeding from the pool bottom rather than hand feeding (to allow foraging and collecting behaviors).
Individual and corporate support—Financial and in-kind support is essential to the marine mammal enrichment program’s success. Items donated must be new.
Durable pet toys like Nylabones, Kongs, balls and chew toys of various shapes
and sizes are needed to help stimulate the senses of the sea otters. Strong, durable floor matting is needed for scratching and rubbing against and also simulates a kelp forest for an otter to wrap up in. Children’s toys such as toddler activity centers, push toys, wagons or carts, large winter sleds, sand buckets and basketballs—all made entirely of heavy-duty plastic or rubber—are also needed for the animals to push and manipulate. Heavy-duty milk crates and PVC pipes are needed for the mammal staff to create food puzzles, and large rubber garbage cans are needed to carry ice to the animals.
About sea otters: Sea otters were once found along the Pacific Rim from California to Alaska and west to Japan. In 1906 the last Oregon sea otter was killed north of Newport. Between their discovery by Europeans in 1741 and their protection in 1911, sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction for their beautiful, thick pelts. Imperiled populations still exists in California and in Alaska, with stable populations living in Washington and British Columbia.
Sea otters range from 50 to 100 pounds and have a luxuriant pelt, averaging one million hairs per square inch—more in one inch than exists on an entire human head. They are the only marine mammals that do not have a layer of blubber to keep them warm. A sea otter will spend an average of three hours per day performing grooming behaviors and relies on an extremely dense fur coat, which traps air next to its skin to insulate it against cold water. Rolling, combing and blowing air into its fur are all included in a sea otter's grooming methods. Its coat must be extensively groomed in order for it to remain waterproof, otherwise cold seawater can reach the skin and the animal will suffer from hypothermia. Voracious eaters, sea otters consume food totaling up to 25 percent of their body weight each day. They eat to help maintain their body temperature in cold seawater. In the wild their diet includes barnacles, chitons, snails, crabs, squids, octopuses, mussels, clams, sea urchins, sea stars and bottom fishes.