Sea otter pup Cayucos’s day starts a lot like yours and mine: She wakes up, she might splash in a little water and groom, and she has breakfast.

But then it veers off into what we can only hope for when we’re on vacation: swimming, playing games, catching a few naps, hanging out with friends and indulging in good food. And—like we might also do on vacation—gaining weight. But when you’re a rapidly growing pup, that’s a good thing.

Shedd caretaker feeding otterFor the next few weeks, these blogs and videos will follow Cayucos (kye-YOO-cohs) through her day as well as her development. Lana Vanagasem, a marine mammal trainer and the assistant supervisor of penguins and sea otters, will be our guide.

Cayucos has been getting around-the-clock care since she arrived at Shedd on Jan. 5. The orphaned pup was found on a California beach, alone and crying, in December by wildlife rescuers. After a short stay at Monterey Bay Aquarium, where our trainers assisted with her intensive care, she was released to Shedd by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Today, the 13-week-old pup is in robust health, and she has a zest for everything. She’s not big enough to be introduced to the other sea otters yet, so Cayucos spends most of her day in a 1,249-gallon private pup pool that was added to the behind-the-scenes nursery of the Regenstein Sea Otter Habitat during the 2009 renovation of the Abbott Oceanarium. The spacious 3-foot-deep pool is surrounded by a deck where the pup can haul out and play, groom, or nap, and trainers can stand or sit to care for her.

Sea otter pups are practically perpetual motion machines. Bedtime for Cayucos is around 2:30 a.m., when the lights in the sea otter nursery are turned off. Lana says, “Then she’ll usually have quiet time until 6:30 in the morning.” So the day’s first 12-hour pup shift starts a little before that, giving the trainer on duty time to go over the previous day’s meticulously kept records on the pup, plan for the coming day and prepare the day’s first meal while Cayucos still naps or starts grooming.

A two-course breakfast, warm formula and a seafood medley, is served at 7. In a blender Lana whirls together clam, water and a powdered milk substitute used for puppies, then puts it in a bottle and swishes it to a soothing temperature in a canister of warm water.

“We feed her wherever she is, on the deck or in the water,” says Lana. “Usually she takes the bottle and holds it with her paws, but we also hold it in place and squeeze the bag so the formula continues down into the nipple.” Cayucos’s tummy pumps up and down as she sucks on the bottle.

Shedd fans may remember photos of other sea otter pups being cradled in trainers’ arms as they were bottle-fed, but Lana says, “I don’t know if she’d sit still for it. She’s a little bit older than some of the pups we’ve taken in, and she’s very independent.”

Next up is a 14-ounce serving of quarter-sized chunks of clam, pollock, squid, shrimp, and, added last week, capelin. “We cut the food into small pieces and peel the shrimp so it’s easier for her to eat,” says Lana. “We do give her half an unpeeled shrimp each feed,” the trainer continues. “At first, she just bit at it. She didn’t know why it was harder to eat, but then she figured out that she had to pull and chew the shell off.” She notes that some of the adult otters pull the shell off while others eat it. “It’s a matter of the otter’s preference.”

Cayucos has also graduated to shellfish. The trainer pries the shell open enough for the pup to see, smell and taste that there's something good inside. “Right now she's learning how to eat out of the shell,” Lana says. As Cayucos becomes more adept at opening and emptying a shell, she'll get less assistance. Tool use is somewhat instinctive among sea otters, so she'll figure out how to use another shell or hard surface to open her clams on her own.

Cayucos, who tips the scale at about 18 pounds this week, consumes the equivalent of 30 percent of her body weight each day—currently about 4½ pounds of food. But she's converting her calories into another pound of body weight each week (as well as into body heat and energy), so her diet is steadily increasing. Her impressive intake is spread across five feedings—down from seven immediately after she was rescued—that are 3½ hours apart.

Feeding sessions take about an hour, but also include training and grooming. We’ll get a demonstration of sea otter grooming in the next blog. 

Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor