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Leading an Animal Encounter:  Sea Otters

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Education | Mammals

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


In addition to continuing to blog about some of the goings-on in the Marine Mammal Department, I thought it would be nice to share some stories from other parts of the Aquarium as well! I’ve recently started as an Aquarist Volunteer in our Tropical Gallery, and I continue to be part of the paid staff in the Education Department. Each job brings new and exciting duties, and this past week was the first time I was able to lead one of our Animal Encounters focusing on one of my favorite animals: the sea otter. Back in March, I posted a little bit about sea otter history and conservation and I’m constantly looking for ways to pass this information on to our guests so they will learn a lot, and yet still have a ton of fun. What better way than meeting one of our animals face-to-face?

Ever wondered how we prepare for our Sea Otter Encounter and what happens during the two-hour tour?

Very early before the guests arrive, it’s necessary to prepare well to make sure the encounter runs smoothly. Please keep in mind each encounter can be different, as working with and around animals can be a little unpredictable! Each encounter explores several areas behind the scenes, and usually consists of visiting one or two holding areas where the guests are usually allowed to feed some of the animals. Since all animals do not need to be fed or are not available all the time, it is necessary to meet up with the Husbandry staff that morning to figure out which holding area or exhibits we will be feeding. We have to make sure the food is prepped and ready, as well as having proper supplies on hand, such as tongs or rubber gloves if needed. We make sure we have access to a few pairs of rubber boots, just in case any of our guests forgets to wear closed-toed shoes. In addition, I think it’s nice to have some artifacts for the guests to look at while talking about the different adaptations of the animals.

I went to meet my guests about 10 minutes before the start of the tour to collect tickets, ensure that everyone had proper foot attire, and talk a little bit about safety throughout the tour. Once we were done with that, the first place I took the group was into one of our classrooms. Each of our two classrooms has a large tide pool touch lab full of sea urchins, sea cucumbers, anemones, sea stars, limpets, juvenile sharks, and other critters. This gave us a fantastic opportunity to talk about otter food, since two of the many types of food that sea otters eat are sea stars and sea urchins. We focused primarily on the sea urchin, as I had already set aside some kelp pieces for the guests to feed them. I was thrilled to see just how intrigued the guests were as they watched the urchins use their tube feet to quickly move the kelp underneath their bodies to their mouths. Once you touch a piece of kelp to a sea urchin, you’re not getting it back! This demonstrated just how important sea otters are to the health and biodiversity of our kelp forests. Just think what would happen if we didn’t have otters around keeping those hungry sea urchin populations at bay!

Once all the kelp was gone, we sat down to take a look at some sea otter skulls and pelt. This gave our guests a chance to understand why these animals were so popular for their fur, as well as an opportunity to understand just how dense and insulating this fur actually is. The skulls give great insight on the sea otter diet, as you’re able to get a great look at their teeth. They have both molars and rounded canines for crushing. This was also a good time to further discuss the natural history of these animals, as well as their temperaments and why we feed them through a plexiglass hole during this encounter. The guests came up with some fantastic questions!

We then took a little break from our Northern Pacific animals and headed to our Tropical Pacific Gallery behind the scenes. As we made our way around the largest part of that gallery, we stopped to check out some shark eggs, some baby sharks, and to do another feeding, of course! This time, the guests got to do a scatter feed of our bamboo shark holding area, tossing chopped squid, shrimp, sardines, and clam into the water for our hungry sharks. We then toured some of the smaller holding areas behind the scenes, including juvenile sea dragons and baby sea horses!

Now it was time to head down to the food prep room and get ready to meet up with one of our mammalogists. We took a detailed tour of the food prep areas and discussed how the food is prepared, as well as how we get vitamins to our animals. Now it was time to get dirty! Each of the guests got to weigh out the proper amount of food for the upcoming feed into each otter bin. Once all the containers were filled with shrimp, squid, clam, and hoki, our mammalogist arrived and up to the otter exhibit we went. Once in our behind the scenes otter encounter area, each guest was able to participate in the feeding and training session with Charlie, our largest (and only male) sea otter. The guests took a lot of pictures and were all smiles! Once the food was gone and any questions answered, we bid our mammalogist farewell and spent the last few minutes of the encounter watching the public sea otter presentation from outside the exhibit. The two hours just flew by, so it was time to answer any final questions for the guests before we said goodbye. Each one of the animal encounter participants said they had a wonderful experience and learned a lot about otters, so I could finally stop being nervous and breathe a sigh of relief as my very first time leading an otter encounter came to an end. I’m glad everyone had a great (and educational) time, and I can’t wait to do another animal encounter!!

Leading an Animal Encounter:  Sea Otters
A hungry urchin.  | © Staci Peters

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