Kachemak floating on her backEvery sea otter pup that has found a home at Shedd Aquarium is special, but Kachemak had an impish charm that melted the hearts of trainers, other staff members, volunteers, donors and even jet pilots. Maybe it was because she was the first of Shedd’s sea otters raised from infancy on site.

On Saturday, at the extraordinary age of 23½, Kachemak was quietly put to sleep, releasing her from a rapid decline in the last week from age-related infirmities. She was the oldest sea otter known in any North American aquarium or zoo.

In a note to the marine mammal and animal health staff members, many of whom only knew Kachemak as an elder otter, Ken Ramirez, executive vice president of animal care and training, wrote, “She has gone to sea otter heaven and joined her friends Kenai, Nikishka, Nuka and Chenik. She is the last of the original five otters that were here when we opened the Oceanarium in 1991.” He credited the dedication, love and great care of the trainers and the skilled and sensitive treatment by Shedd’s veterinarians for the sea otter’s long and comfortable life.

She was only 3 or 4 weeks old when she was found on the shore of Kachemak (KATCH-mak) Bay, near the town of Homer, Alaska, on May 23, 1990. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, who oversaw her rescue, speculated that she had been separated from her mother during a storm. She was being cared for at an emergency pet clinic in Anchorage while wildlife officials searched for an aquarium to adopt her. The handful of U.S. aquariums equipped to care for sea otters already had animals rescued from the Exxon Valdez disaster a year earlier. Shedd had four oil-spill pups—and room for more.

As a pup“Fish and Wildlife Service was pretty happy when I told them that we could take her,” Jim Robinett, senior vice president of external and regulatory affairs, said at the time. “We had the space, and here was an animal in need of a home, so we said yes.” A Shedd trainer and a veterinarian accompanied the 6-pound pup on the flight from Anchorage to Chicago aboard a cargo jet. So that Kachemak could be cared for throughout the flight, she and the trainer were allowed to ride in the cockpit.

Kachemak arrived at Shedd around June 10 and settled into a nursery and rehab area set up especially for her behind a gallery—the Oceanarium was still under construction. She received around-the-clock care in the air-conditioned structure, which included a small water bed to help the pup maintain a constant body temperature and to provide the gentle wave action similar to what she had experienced sleeping on her mother’s stomach in the ocean. She also had a kiddie pool—usually littered with whole clams and an assortment of sturdy plastic baby toys—for her swimming lessons. In typical otter fashion, Kachemak floated on her back, hammering the clams against the toys on her chest. Her trainer at the time noted that on one try, she discovered the technique for cracking the shellfish open.

Kachemak with trainerOver more than two decades, Kachemak impressed people for different reasons. In his note, Ken Ramirez recalled her amazing climbing abilities in the early days. “Only a few will remember that she used to have the nickname ‘Kachemonkey’—a name I had to make staff stop using!”

Trainer Tim Ward said, “Kachemak was the first sea otter I worked with. During target training, she’d grab the target and pull it halfway into the water, and I’d say, ‘No, you can’t have it!’ She was special.”

I remember little Kachemak’s piercing squeals when she wanted attention (which was often). The pup’s shrill vocalizations carried throughout the aquarium’s behind-the-scenes area—and probably out to the galleries. At the time, the circular path through the work area was the quickest way for employees to get from point A to point B, and provided an excellent chance to catch up on the animals with care staff members. I popped by to see tiny Kachemak often and once or twice gave in to the temptation to trade high-pitched squeals with her, although I shouldn’t have. She didn’t need encouragement.

When the Oceanarium opened in 1991, Kachemak joined the older sea otters in the Regenstein Sea Otter Habitat (she was a favorite of donor Joseph Regenstein). And she befriended each new rescued pup who joined Shedd’s sea otter population. “Kachemak had a very sweet disposition,” Ken said, “unless you pushed her too far. When that happened with the younger otters, she would put them in their place. She did the same for teaching trainers how to work with a sea otter!”

The excellent care that enables so many of Shedd’s animals to live comfortably into advanced age can lull us into thinking they’ll always be around. Kachemak was a fixture, an influence, the first furry sea otter pup some of us had met. She is part of Shedd’s history now—and in that way, she will always be around.

Karen Furnweger, web editor