Glistening dark bodies roll in the water. Light-furred faces pop to the surface, then dive back in. And slinky forms trade places between pool and rocks.
For someone without a trainer’s eye, Shedd Aquarium’s ;sea otters look an awful lot alike. And they seldom stay still long enough for you to try to discern differences. To help you figure out who is who, here are each otter’s key characteristics, or field marks, as wildlife biologists say.
Let’s start with the easiest otters: the largest one and smallest two.
Yaku, the adult male in the group, is the largest. A Shedd resident since 2001, he was born at the Seattle Aquarium in 2000. Yaku is about 4 feet long and weighs around 70 pounds. He has a white face. Trainers describe him as easygoing, and you have a good chance of seeing him taking a nap in the car-wash-strip “kelp” in the Regenstein Sea Otter Habitat.
Cooper is one of two rescued southern sea otter pups that arrived at Shedd in July 2019. The dark-furred otter weighs about 35 pounds. But he was tiny when, in May 2019, he was picked up off the California coast by a kayaker who heard the pup's calls, thought he was abandoned and removed him from the location. In all likelihood, the pup had probably been "parked" in kelp by mom so she could hunt. The pup wound up with Monterey Bay Aquarium's sea otter rescue team, which returned to the site hoping to locate the mother. Because the rescuers failed to find any adult sea otters and the pup needed immediate nourishment, the decision was made to take him into human care, effectively eliminating the likelihood that the 2-week-old pup could ever be returned to the wild. While the kayaker's intentions were good, it is a reminder that the public should not intervene with wild animals, but instead call experts with their concerns.
Southern sea otter Watson was rescued two days after Cooper, and the two infants became fast buddies at Monterey Bay Aquarium's sea otter nursery. You can tell them apart by Watson's lighter fur. At 30 pounds, he's also slightly smaller. When rescuers discovered Watson, after hikers reported a stranding, the pup was hungry, wet and shivering from hypothermia. No adult otters were in the area, and the pup was in such rough shape that rescuers immediately took him to the aquarium for triage. Watson was tangled in seagrass and covered in sand, leading experts to believe he had been separated from his mother during a recent storm and tossed by waves onto the beach. Without a mother to teach him survival skills, he needed a permanent home. Monterey Bay Aquarium asked if Shedd could take both pups. Today, while Cooper and Watson are still closely bonded, they play with younger adults Luna and Ellie and learn from older otters Kiana and Yaku.
At just a few days old, Luna was one of the tiniest rescues taken in by Monterey Bay Aquarium's sea otter experts. On Sept. 30, 2014, rescuers were called after the 2-pound pup's high-pitched cries had been heard along a rocky stretch of California coast. After four weeks of intensive care, Luna, who could not be returned to the wild, was welcomed at Shedd. The tiny, photogenic ball of fluffy fur and her rescue story caught national attention, and Luna appeared on two lists of cutest animals in the world. More important, she became an ambassador for her species. Although they used to be abundant, threatened southern sea otters are now only found in small populations along the California coast, where they are vulnerable to food limitation from human overfishing, warming ocean temperatures, severe weather and periodic climatic events, pollutants, diseases from land-based runoff, predation and human intrusions. The risk of a major oil spill also continues to pose a serious threat.
The El Niño-associated storms that battered California's coast in January 2016 may have separated 4-week-old Ellie from her mother. She was found alone by a beachgoer, who alerted local police. In an effort to reunite the pup and her mother, Monterey Bay Aquarium's otter rescuers cradled the little otter as they walked the rough surf, listening for the mother's call. When they were unsuccessful, they took the pup to the aquarium's veterinary intensive care unit, where she received around-the-clock care. At the end of January that year, Ellie arrived at her permanent home at Shedd, where she continued to receive around-the-clock care as she met important milestones including gaining weight, learning to groom, eating solid foods and meeting the other sea otters. And she found an equally energetic playmate in year-old Luna.
That leaves one more adult female sea otter, Kiana. Kiana came to us as a tiny rescue from Alaskan waters. She is pretty distinguishable by fur color: Kiana is a real standout with an all-white head. You won’t confuse her with Yaku because she’s visibly smaller at 40 to 45 pounds. She is the most independent. While Kiana socializes some, she spends a lot of time on her own, grooming, napping and playing with her favorite toys, including balls. She also likes to hog the felt “kelp” strips when she sleeps. She’ll curl up in her cozy bed with the tip of her tail in her mouth.
Once you know what to look for, you should be able to identify at least a few of the sea otters, even if they don’t stay in one place long enough for easy comparisons. If you happen to catch a training session, you can decode who they are by the unique hand-held shapes used to call them to station, the same as the dolphins and belugas have: Yaku—blue square; Kiana—green triangle; Luna—yellow star; Ellie—red circle; Cooper—green-and-blue bowtie; Watson—red-and-yellow cross.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor
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