The Seattle Aquarium recently lost one of its most cherished marine mammals, an orphaned sea otter named Lootas, who lived to the rare age (for a sea otter) of 23. She delighted the aquarium public for decades as we watched her grow from an exuberant young pup into a devoted mother and grandma. Her amazing journey to survive and thrive in the care of a dedicated team of trained experts and volunteers resulted in the first successful raising of a wild sea otter under their care and the first aquarium in the world to successfully breed sea otters.
My connection with Lootas began the day I visited the aquarium with my then 10-year-old son a month after Lootas arrived at the aquarium in July of 1997. The sea otter exhibit was our first stop. We loved watching them swim, do somersaults and dive in the deep pool, chase each other around, eat mussels and crack crab while using their bellies as a table, and groom their thick fur coats with fingerlike paws.
An excited docent told us that a one-month-old wild sea otter pup had just been rescued and brought to the aquarium after her mother was accidentally killed by a fishing boat in Southeastern Alaska. A sea otter pup that age could not survive on her own in the wild. Too young to swim or feed herself, she would be easy prey for a passing eagle. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which cares for stranded sea otter pups, put a call out to aquariums around the country, and the Seattle Aquarium was the first to respond. As soon as the pup’s condition stabilized enough to travel, she was airlifted to the aquarium.
My son and I were thrilled when the docent offered to take us behind the scenes to meet marine biologist C.J. Casson, who was bleary-eyed from having taken care of the pup round-the-clock for several days. I’m sure he was surprised to see us but luckily amused when my son exclaimed, “My mother is an author and wants to write a book about your sea otter.”
“You’ve got a good PR person working for you. You’re hired!” Casson said.
Casson and his team had set up a makeshift nursery to care for the pup. The cramped space contained a crib for the pup to sleep in with a plastic water bed (aka otterbed) to simulate ocean motion; three plastic tubs filled with water where she could poop, get cleaned off and practice floating; and several standing fans to help dry the pup’s thick fur (half a million hairs per square inch). In the wild, a sea otter mother spends approximately six months feeding, grooming the pup’s fur to keep it buoyant, and carrying the pup constantly until it learns how to swim, dive and feed itself. For Casson, the bathing and grooming routine alone took three hours and was repeated five times each day for the first month. Keeping the fur clean and dry is critical to survival for sea otters who spend their whole lives in the water.
Within a few months, Lootas grew strong enough to swim, dive and feed herself, with help from her human friends. She attracted the attention of an 8-year-old adult female otter, Kenai — the right age to be her mother — who showed her how to behave like a sea otter and join the other adult members of the aquarium’s sea otter family.
By six months, Lootas had reached the stage where, in the wild, she and her mother would have gone their separate ways. Having been rescued and raised by humans, Lootas would not likely be afraid of them, which is why she could never be released to the wild. She became a devoted mother to her three pups and, much later, a doting grandmother to her daughter Aniak’s son, Sekiu, while maintaining a lifelong bond with the aquarium’s care team. During these difficult times, it is comforting to honor a survivor that brought joy to generations of Washingtonians.