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Two orphaned southern sea otter pups that were rescued by Monterey Bay Aquarium bounded into Shedd’s sea otter nursery pool—and their caregivers’ hearts—on Monday, July 8. They will receive around-the-clock care behind the scenes for several months as they bond with their trainers, learn essential survival skills and socialize with the four adult otters before making their debut to aquarium guests.

Two otter pups, one on the left slightly darker and one on the right lighter and with its mouth slightly open, get hands-on grooming from two trainers armed with fluffy white towels.

The lively male pups are temporarily known as 870 and 872, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s intake numbers for them. The California aquarium is the world’s foremost rescue, release, conservation research and advocacy organization dedicated to the recovery of this threatened species, and it is the primary facility designated to receive stranded southern sea otter pups and adults. Officials there contacted Shedd when one, and then two pups needed a home. 

“While it’s never good news to hear that an animal has been orphaned or needs rescue,” said Peggy Sloan, chief animal operations officer, “Shedd Aquarium stands ready to assist, whether that’s rehabilitating and releasing animals or, in this case, providing a safe home for those that need it. We are honored to work with our partners at Monterey Bay Aquarium to bring in these two pups and continue to excite and educate our guests about these unbelievable aquatic animals.”

A sea otter pup lies on its front amidst strips of blue fabric.

Pup 870

A fluffy otter pup lies on its back with its arms raised above its head.

Pup 872

Meet the new pups

Pup 870 has dark brown fur, is estimated to be 10 weeks old and weighs 17 pounds. He was discovered stranded on May 18 near Stillwater Cove in Carmel Bay, on California’s central coast. While the pup was clinically healthy, the rescue team’s lengthy attempts to locate his mother were unsuccessful, and rescuers did not want to leave the pup alone and vulnerable. 

Pup 872, who has lighter brown fur, is about 9 weeks old and weighs 13.4 pounds, was brought in two days later. This pup was found distressed and vocalizing in high-pitched cries in high winds and heavy surf at Asilomar State Beach on the Monterey Peninsula. The pup’s insulating coat was gritty with sand, suggesting he’d been tossed about in high waves, and he was shivering with hypothermia, which can rapidly lead to death. The otter rescue team determined it was essential to stop the search for the mother and rush the pup to the aquarium for stabilization.

Because the pups were so young when they were separated from their mothers and had not learned how to survive in the wild, biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assessed both as nonreleasable. Shedd was asked to provide a home to the little otters because Monterey Bay’s successful sea otter surrogacy program is currently at capacity with other pups in need.

Decades of work for sea otters...

The groundbreaking surrogacy program pairs rescued pups with the aquarium’s experienced female otters to learn and hone survival skills in preparation for release back into the ocean. Since 1984, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program has carried out hundreds of rescues, rehabilitations and releases that have contributed to sea otter conservation and ecosystem restoration. The program has also rehomed 78 nonreleasable pups, including 681 and 719, better known in Chicago as Luna and Ellie, the dynamic duo in the Regenstein Sea Otter Habitat. 

Karl Mayer, sea otter field response coordinator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Otter Program, said, “We are thankful for longstanding partnerships like the one with Shedd Aquarium, which can continue to provide exceptional care to the otters that come through our program and need a home but cannot survive on their own in the wild.” 

Shedd is one of 11 North American zoological organizations that currently provide homes for 36 nonreleasable southern sea otters. Our experience began in Alaska in1989, assisting with the massive sea otter rehabilitation effort after the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Oceanarium opened with four nonreleasable oil-spill orphans splashing in the Regenstein Sea Otter Habitat, and a dozen more, including the newest pair, have been placed with us since then. We quickly earned recognition as experts in sea otter pup rehabilitation.

Two otter pups lie against each other as a Shedd trainer rubs them down with a towel.

...And around-the-clock care for pups

Orphaned sea otters require intensive extended care. Senior trainer Tracy Deakins (pictured above, right, at Monterey Bay Aquarium), who accompanied the new pups on their trip to Chicago, said, “These two kept us busy from the moment we arrived.” 

Rescued pups are usually still young enough to require being bottle-fed every few hours with a special formula blended in the kitchen of the Regenstein Sea Otter Nursery. Slowly they transition to chopped bits of fish, squid and clam, then larger pieces and finally whole seafood, including clams they learn to forage for and crack open themselves. After swimming lessons in the pup-sized pool in the nursery, the otters’ fur must be meticulously towel-dried and fluffed to maintain the insulating properties until the pups learn to groom themselves.

Two sea otter pups lie side by side with their eyes squinted shut in slumber.

Training goes hand-in-hand with feeding, and feeding sessions alternate with enrichment, featuring an assortment of toys that advance the otters’ swimming, diving, foraging and problem-solving skills. These interactions with the trainers fulfill the otters’ need for fast-paced physical and mental stimulation.

Together we can tackle the big job of saving them

Noting that sea otter populations were nearly extirpated more than a century ago by the fur trade, and they continue to face threats, from oil spills to climate change, Chief Animal Operations Officer Sloan said, “While everyone may not be able to go out and rescue or provide a home for a sea otter in need, we have to remember that the survival of a species like the southern sea otter is a group effort—it takes all of us.”

She continued, “Southern sea otters would not be around today if it weren’t for dedicated individuals who passed critical legislation like the Endangered Species Act, providing the protections necessary for the populations to recover. Our job is to facilitate a connection between the guests at the aquarium and nature to help the public see that we all have the ability to make a difference.”

—Karen Furnweger, web editor

Shedd Aquarium is grateful to the Regenstein Foundation for its generous support for the rescue and rehabilitation of our newest sea otters. A longtime friend to the aquarium, the foundation has made significant contributions to these animals over many years, ensuring expert care in their home in the Regenstein Sea Otter Habitat and Regenstein Sea Otter Nursery. Additional support for the rescue of these otters was generously provided by Lauran and Myrna Bromley.