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A New Adventure in “Otter” Space

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Video | Volunteering | Mammals

Thursday, December 09, 2010


The little orphan sea otter whimpered softly as she crawled onto my lap. Finding it a worthy substitute for a momma otter’s belly she proceeded to curl up and began to groom her baby fur with her paws. Still unable to fully tend to her fur all by herself I helped by using a towel and comb to work on her problem areas. After a few minutes her swirling paws were starting to slow down and her eyes were getting heavy. Then one of her paws gripped the towel I was using to dry her and moved it across her body like a blanket. Moments later the little furry critter was fully asleep on my lap looking like a child snoozing on a bed. Thus began my newest Adventure in Otter Space.

Little Orphan Ollie came to the Aquarium of the Pacific on October 22, 2010. I was there when mammalogist Caitlin arrived with the small ball of fur from Monterey. Weeks before Caitlin had gone up to Monterey to take charge of the the pint sized critter and supervise her move to Long Beach. Hearing the baby otter’s cries from the transport kennel as she was lifted into her temporary home in the holding pad that’s part of the Aquarium’s behind the scenes area brought back memories of my previous adventure with a baby otter. Their “where are you mom” otter cries are quite distinctive and ear piercing. And like that earlier experience, I would be babysitting the young otter during her first night in Long Beach since she would need nearly constant care for the first few weeks.

I found out right away that this little female would be quite different from the baby sea otter that I had helped raised before. For one thing, unlike the earlier orphaned no-name baby otter that I had nicknamed the “Furball” at the time, this one had a name. A little girl named Grace had dubbed her Ollie and the name seemed to fit.

Another thing that was different about this otter was that she was a lot younger than the Furball was when she had first arrived at the Aquarium. Ollie was a lot needier than the Furball. She especially needed the reassurance of a warm body next to her to make her feel secure.

During the first few nights at the Aquarium she would cry constantly until you either started to help groom her with a towel, let her lean on you while she was out of the water or just sat next to her as she floated in the water. If you got more than a few feet away she would cry until you returned or until she swam next to you again. It would seemed to be an easy thing to do to keep her happy by being physically close by except when you consider that you had to be in the water with her and that the water was kept at about 58 degrees since otters are colder water species. She could get out of the water onto a small raft in the holding pad but the staff had to be thigh deep in the cold water in waders while attending to her. The fall weather in Long Beach can also get quite cold and wet in the open air holding pad. The only concession we had was a small step ladder we could sit on in the water while next to her raft. This also made our laps accessible to the little fuzzy critter for her to lean her body on while being groomed during those first few nights at the pad. For a furry baby otter it was a comfortable environment. For a human it could get quite miserable, especially in the rain.

On one shift I had her happily floating next to me in the water while I fed her as a cold rain dripped onto my head through open spaces in the pad’s canopy and into my waders. I was wet and cold and feeling quite sorry for myself. Then the sun shined through a break in the storm clouds as Ollie climbed out of the water to groom herself after her meal. She soon fell asleep while leaning against my lap. Looking down I noticed how the warmth of the sun was starting to dry out her fur. I could see the steam raising from her coat from the evaporating moisture. The rays of the sun back-lit the water vapors as they rose like a spiritual aura. It was a surreal and almost mystic sight to behold as the sun transformed her from a wet rag of a pup to a beautiful fluffy ball of otter fur. I then noticed that I wasn’t quite as cold as I was just moments ago. The warmth of her body against my lap and the heat from the sun were warming my own body up. I also thought what a priceless moment this was to have a contented little orphan otter happily sleeping next to me. The fact that this pup put so much trust in me helped warmed my soul. With only a few thousand California sea otters (Enhydras lutris-nereis) left in the world it made me feel good that as a volunteer at the Aquarium of the Pacific I am able to contribute in a small but direct way toward helping this threatened species.

Below is a just for fun video done in the style of a movie trailer that I put together during her first couple of weeks at the Aquarium to help introduce Ollie the Sea Otter. Currently Ollie is more independent and less needy now than when she first arrived. Since she’s able to groom all by herself now she is no longer allowed to climb or lean on us. It’s the first part of her training. She’s beginning to learn proper people-otter interaction manners. She’s also more comfortable being by herself for extended periods. However, Ollie is still a baby and won’t be introduced to the sea otter exhibit until she is old enough to hang out with the big otters. If you would like the chance to see Little Orphan Ollie this winter check out the Aquarium’s behind the scenes tour which takes you by her pad.

A New Adventure in “Otter” Space
Ollie the orphan sea otter.  | Hugh Ryono
A New Adventure in “Otter” Space
Ollie fast asleep with some play kelp.  | Hugh Ryono
A New Adventure in “Otter” Space
Because she was so young when she arrived at the Aquarium of the Pacific the staff had to help her groom herself using towels and brushes.
A New Adventure in “Otter” Space
Ollie asleep next to me.  | Hugh Ryono

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Ann Marie Jones

Thursday, December 09, 2010 08:17 PM

She is extremely cute!

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010 06:15 PM

Hugh, you are such a prince to help these beautiful little critters through their first weeks.  She’s absolutely beautiful.

Sounds like you need some seriously good long johns and fleece to wear under your waders!

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