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You may not have heard (if not, where’ve you been?), but the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is now home to rescued sea otter pup Rialto, and he arrived just in time for Sea Otter Awareness Week. Although we know it’s his fuzzy face that has earned him the title of “the world’s cutest baby otter,” there is more to this furry creature than just being cute.

You may have noticed that Rialto, and adult otters Elfin, Katmai and Tanu have different “toys” to play with in their habitats. These toys are actually enrichment devices our marine mammal trainers use to mentally and physically stimulate and challenge the otters. As Rialto gets older, the trainers will continue to introduce new enrichment tools to encourage the development of natural behaviours he would have in the wild.

Sea otter eating a crab at the Vancouver Aquarium

Crabs

A frequently asked question we get about the otters is whether or not we give them live food or food with shells. The answer is yes, we do, but not as their regular diet. Sea otters have a huge appetite and need to consume approximately 25 per cent of their body weight every day — if their food is in a shell it’s hard to know how many calories they’re actually getting. The trainers weigh out the appropriate portion of food for the day and use crabs, mussels and sea urchins as extra treats and for enrichment purposes.

The otters have to work to open the shells with their claws or figure out different tactics to break the shell open to eat them. This activity is a natural behaviour they would be exhibiting in the ocean and is challenging and mentally stimulating. Each otter has a preferred way to tackle the shells — Katmai dives right in while Tanu takes her time and inspects the shell, figuring out the best angle to use. When Elfin gets a hold of the crab, he takes its claws off right away, and swims with it on his belly. All three of them teach and learn from each other.

Ice blocks

The sea otter trainers freeze big ice blocks with smaller enrichment items or treats inside. The idea behind the large ice blocks is to encourage a natural jackhammering behaviour in otters for physical stimulation. The treats — like shrimp and toys — frozen inside the ice blocks are used to motivate the otters to work to figure out the puzzle, break the ice block and get to the treat. They are extremely tactile animals who enjoy puzzles and just simply love ice.

Photo credit: Christine Wernicke

Photo credit: Christine Wernicke

Felt sea star toy

Out in the ocean sea otters hold each other’s paws or hold onto kelp to keep from getting swept away by currents while they sleep. It’s a behavior known as rafting. “It’s a natural instinct for them to hold onto something,” says marine mammal trainer Nicky Garza. Katmai and Tanu often hold hands but the trainers also give the otters different toys, like the felt sea star, that act as kelp and provide them with an anchor to hold onto while they sleep or float in their habitat.

Scents

Sea otters have an acute sense of smell; providing different scents for them exercises their olfactory system and can be a great way to build a relationship between the trainer and the otter. “Building a good relationship with the otters is the foundation for everything we do with them. We need to build that trust and relationship in order to give them the best care possible; we want them to interact with us,” explains Nicky. The marine mammal trainers stimulate their environment by adding natural extracts such as coconut, or lemon scents to a pile of ice in their habitat for the otters to smell. Elfin is a big fan of sniffing the different scents — he especially seems to enjoy the trainers’ breath if they’re chewing gum or even their coffee breath.

“We want to make sure they’re being active and mentally stimulated outside of the regular sessions with the marine mammal trainers,” says Nicky. These enrichment tools are key components for creating a stimulating environment on a on a regular basis.

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