NEWPORT — After a few short months of construction, the Oregon Coast Aquarium opened its new otter holding facility on Friday, Aug. 23, and introduced Nuka, Oswald and Schuster to their new space.
The facility is just the first step in the larger goal of building a marine rehabilitation center, but it already allows the aquarium to do more for stranded and sick sea otters — and it could lead to a chance for the public to meet a sea otter up close and personal.
The aquarium first started raising funds for the facility in November on Facebook’s “Giving Tuesday,” and a few weeks later had collected $67,000 — which was above their initial goal, thanks to 225 donors, including an anonymous donor who contributed in honor of the researcher Dr. Nelio Baptista Barros, who co-organized the Northern Oregon/Washington Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
Communications and marketing manager Sally Compton said the reasons for building this new facility were twofold.
“The first (reason) is so that we can take an additional rescued sea otter,” said Compton. “We’re actually only one of 13 facilities in the entire continent of North America that has the authority to take in sea otters, and so previously, if there was a rescued sea otter that maybe was abandoned or orphaned, and rehabilitated — and it was deemed non-releasable — there was actually no place for it to go.”
Now, the Oregon Coast Aquarium could be the home to a fourth otter, should one be deemed unreleasable. The other primary reason for the new holding area, Compton said, was so the aquarium could quarantine an otter if necessary.
“We have three male sea otters right now,” said Compton, “and in case we ever had an event where maybe there was unusual mass mortality on the West Coast and we just needed a place to hold sea otters ... we would need to be able to quarantine them. And so this facility gives us the ability.”
Additionally, if one of the aquarium’s resident otters needed to be separated for any reason — for example, recovering from a surgery — then this additional area could also be used for that purpose. But those aren’t the only possibilities that this opens up for the aquarium or for its visitors.
“Because we were able to raise a certain amount of funds that actually was above the original (goal) that we anticipated, we were able to add on some really cool features to this facility,” said Compton.
She explained that one of those features is a group of small openings in the glass at the front of the tank, which are large enough for the otters to present their paw through or accept food from staff and the husbandry team. This allows the husbandry team to inspect the otters up close without having to go on exhibit — it also means that an otter encounter program could be on the horizon.
“We’re hoping that eventually we’ll be able to develop a sea otter encounter program,” said Compton, “which I know that people get really excited about. So we’re hoping maybe something like a paw present and you could actually get to encounter a sea otter really up close and personal, and this is really great because not only do people love sea otters because they’re cute and fluffy, but they’re super important to marine ecosystems — and sea otters are extinct here in Oregon. And so if we can educate the public on the importance of sea otters to Oregon’s kelp forest and in general, I think that would be really great for their species.”
The public will have the chance to see this new holding facility on Sea Otter Awareness Day at the aquarium on Sept. 28. That day, Schuster, Oswald and Nuka will be acting as proud ambassadors for sea otters everywhere, and everyone is invited to learn more about the keystone species.