The Shedd Aquarium family is heartbroken as we say goodbye to Mari, one of our beloved northern sea otters. She died Wednesday, Feb. 7, around 6 p.m., from complications following surgery to remove several tumors in her reproductive tract.

With her blond face and noticeably larger size, the 14½-year-old otter was one of the easiest to identify among the raft of dark, glistening, often zooming bodies in the two-story sea otter habitat. Often, a smaller otter, Ellie, could be seen hugging her by the neck.

“Animals have such an impact on us,” said Shedd President and CEO Bridget C. Coughlin. “They infuse themselves into our hearts, our thoughts, our larger relationship with nature. At Shedd Aquarium, we look nature in the eye. Mari looked right back at us, with curiosity and spunk.”

Like most of Shedd’s sea otters, Mari was a rescue, but an unintentional one. She was born in mid-June 2003. On July 23, kayakers on Kachemak Bay, a sheltered waterway off the southern coast of Alaska, heard the characteristic high-pitched screams of a sea otter pup. Thinking the tiny otter floating in a kelp bed was abandoned, they took her back to shore and wildlife authorities.

Mari most likely had been doing just fine. Before a mother sea otter heads out to forage for food, she wraps her pup in long strands of kelp, or “parks” it. The little otter is camouflaged amid the shiny dark brown algae and won’t drift off. Its loud vocalizations are the audio beacon by which mom finds it again. By removing the pup from her habitat—permanently separating the pup from her mom—the well-meaning kayakers guaranteed that she would never go back to the wild. (They also violated federal wildlife laws.)

Unable to feed or groom herself, Mari was temporarily placed in the care of the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, which is the only authorized marine mammal rescue facility in the state. When the pup had stabilized, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked Shedd to provide the pup with a permanent home, based on the aquarium’s excellent facilities and success in caring for fragile sea otter pups, beginning with orphans from the Exxon Valdez oil spill 14 years earlier.

A team of Shedd marine mammal experts went to Seward to help with Mari’s rehabilitation, and they brought her home on Sept. 5 on a chartered flight donated by an aquarium trustee.

The now 7-pound pup required around-the-clock care, with six daily feedings of a fish/dairy-blend formula, supervised swims, grooming lessons and training. This was before Shedd built its custom-designed Regenstein Sea Otter Nursery with a private pup pool. Instead, a nursery was set up behind the scenes in the otter area with a waterbed crib, a grooming table stocked with fluffy towels and a hair dryer, and lots of sturdy toys. The waterbed was used to give the pup support and the sensation of floating on the water or riding on her mom’s tummy. Swimming lessons were in a small reserve pool.

Lana Vanagasem, Shedd’s manager of penguins, sea otters and dogs, was a temporary full-time animal care specialist when the 3-month-old sea otter arrived. “She was the first sea otter pup I helped to hand-raise,” she said. Through several months of intensive care, Lana built a long-term trusting relationship with Mari, full of positive interactions during training, feeding and play sessions. While animal care staff members often demure when asked about favorite animals, Lana admitted that Mari was extra-special to her.

Lana’s favorite memory is of having tiny Mari crawl into her lap. “It was so precious because I’d put a towel on my lap and pat my lap, and she’d run over. If you’ve seen how pups groom, they’ll go like this on their backs”—she demonstrated the twisting, wriggling motion—“so she’d be like that, and it was so sweet.”

The trainer treasures having watched Mari move through the stages of her life, from a frisky pup to an unruffled adult who patiently put up with new pups’ antics and joined in the play. Because she was the most docile, she was the first adult otter that rescued pups Ellie and Luna were introduced to.

Mari remained playful, especially enjoying ice or, in winter, snow placed in the habitat. During free-form enrichment sessions (playtime) behind the scenes, she seldom missed a chance to climb into a bucket or tub of ice and rummage through the cubes with her paws, grabbing the slippery treats to chew on.

As an adult, she also seemed to relish her private time in the 1,250-gallon nursery pool, built in 2009. Bobbing up and down at the pool’s wall of windows, she actively watched aquarium staffers going through the hall between the exhibit and reserve area. Mari also spent a lot of time in the “kelp beds”—long car wash strips that can either be floated in the water or laid on dry ground. She snuggled in them on the rockwork, often hogging them and not sharing with the other otters.

Mari will be cherished for her singular characteristics and sorely missed by everyone who works or volunteers at Shedd. We are buoyed by the four other otters—Yaku, Kiana, Luna and Ellie―who are thriving. With each rescued sea otter that we open our door and our hearts to, we learn more about these smallest of marine mammals. The sea otters in Kachemak Bay, where Mari was found, are among two populations in Alaska that have stable numbers. A third population is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. All are protected through the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

At Shedd we remain committed to sea otter conservation. We are partners with the Alaska SeaLife Center—where Mari first came into human care back in 2003—and last year members of our Animal Response Team spent many weeks there helping to rehabilitate two stranded sea otter pups, Odiak and Kasilof. Shedd ranks among the leaders in North America for its experience and expertise with sea otters of all ages, in part thanks to Mari.

“Mari was often the first otter to engage in new play and enrichment activities, making her extra fun to watch,” said Tim Binder, executive vice president of animals. “She will be greatly missed, but her rich and robust life here and her story helped spark compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world for millions of visitors who shared her journey with us.”

―Karen Furnweger, web editor