Remember Rialto? The adorable, fluffy sea otter baby who was starving and near death when he was rescued off a Washington beach in 2016?
Well, he’s doing just fine at his permanent home in the Vancouver Aquarium, staff say. Rialto was nursed back to health at the Seattle Aquarium before being moved to Vancouver in September 2016.
Sea otters, whose numbers were once estimated at 150,000 to 300,000, were hunted to the brink of extinction for their fur between 1741 and 1911, when their population fell to between 1,000 and 2,000. Interestingly, they’re one of the few mammals that use tools, wielding rocks to open shells.
Conservation efforts, including an international ban on hunting sea otters, have helped the marine mammals recover to their historic numbers, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
This important success in marine conservation is why the last week in September is celebrated as Sea Otter Awareness Week. Despite the triumph, sea otter populations are still declining in some areas. The mammals — in the same family as weasels, badgers and wolverines — remain endangered.
Sea otters are ecologically critical, as they inhabit near-shore environments and forage for sea urchins, mollusks, crustaceans and some fish. An uncontrolled population of sea urchins would cause extensive damage to kelp forest systems.
When the Vancouver Aquarium closed due to the pandemic, Rialto and the other otters missed the exchanges they had with visitors, said Mackenzie Neale, the aquarium’s director of animal care. Now that it’s reopened, the otters are eager to interact.
Rialto is now 5 years old and is friends with all the other otters at the aquarium, Neale said. He plays most frequently with three other males.
Neale said Rialto is friendly, has an even personality and is “pretty chill.”
All of the sea otters living at the Vancouver Aquarium were rescued as orphaned pups. They were deemed non-releasable by Canadian and U.S. government agencies because they were all too young to have the life skills necessary to survive on their own in the wild.