Rialto, the stranded baby sea otter rescued and nursed back to health at the Seattle Aquarium, is settling in at his new home in Vancouver. Fans here will be able to watch him via webcam.
VANCOUVER, B.C. — “Shriek!” Rialto said. “Shriek, shriek!”
Loaded up on a wheeled cart, in a cage to get him from his nursery in the Seattle Aquarium, Rialto the baby sea otter was strongly voicing his opinion about moving day to Vancouver.
“Shriek!” said Rialto, as his caregivers wheeled him through startled patrons at the aquarium’s exhibits to get him outside to a waiting van. It was as if to say, “What the heck is going on?”
“Shriek!” He kept it right up, as he was loaded into the van. So loudly, you could hear him in a car behind the van, in moving traffic.
“Shriek!” It also seemed to be the sea otter’s opinion of Interstate 5 — but really, who could blame him?
Rialto made the journey Monday in a large cage with towels and ice toys and lots of hand holding by Shawn Larson, head of Rialto’s care team at the Seattle Aquarium. “I just keep talking to him, letting him smell my hand, holding his paw, it seems to comfort him,” she said.
A team of caregivers from the Vancouver Aquarium also traveled with Rialto for the five-hour ride to his new home there, crossing the border with aplomb. There, a federal wildlife officer and aquarium approved his transport.
Once they arrived at the aquarium, Kristi Heffron, senior marine-mammal trainer there, took Rialto from his cage and cradled him in her arms to walk him into his new nursery, and gently put him right into a wading pool of saltwater. Rialto instantly quieted, and swished around like it was just where he belonged, shaking off the trip as if it had never happened.
He seemed to take a particular interest in the fish pictures on the bottom of the wading pool, ducking his head underwater to look at them closely. Within 10 minutes of arrival, he was floating on his back, playing with toys and lobbying for a clam milk shake.
“It’s coming,” said Larson, as Heffron worked at mixing his clam and puppy-formula concoction.
More than 20 staff members from the Vancouver Aquarium were waiting for Rialto as the van drove up to the loading dock, and stood by to help as he arrived, like the staff at Downton Abbey welcoming family home to the manor from a trip.
There was a hush in the nursery as Rialto was settled in, so as not to bother him. He quieted down as soon as his fur hit the saltwater in his pool. “You made it!” Larson said. “You’re a Canadian now!”
His nursery adjoins the quarters of the aquarium’s other otters. He can see them, and they can even touch noses through holes in the clear Plexiglas door between their quarters. But it’s not time to introduce him just yet.
In a few days or weeks, depending on how things go, Rialto will have access to the large saltwater pool when the other otters are out of it. And eventually, there will be introductions to his new otter family.
But for now, the idea is to let him rest up, gain weight and settle in, using his baby pool for fun. The nursery also includes a crib with water-bed mattress, a grooming table, and something the public will love: a webcam, to follow his doings.
Rialto is the only Washington sea otter anywhere in captivity. He stranded on Rialto Beach — hence his name — on Aug. 1, too young to be released to the wild. So now, this is home.
For Larson, handing Rialto over is the end of one journey, and the beginning of another. “He was a really sick little otter for about three weeks. Then in the last three weeks, he’s been acting like a normal sea otter, playing, and each day brings a new development. He’s just growing bigger, stronger and faster all the time.”
Now about 9 weeks old and weighing 15 pounds, his recovery with round-the-clock care at the Seattle Aquarium has been remarkable.
After his first swim in his new pool, Larson toweled him off. “Here you are, a nice new towel,” Larson said as Rialto fluffed and groomed his fur.
“It’s emotional to give up your baby, that’s what it feels like. But it’s right for him,” Larson said. “And he’ll be an ambassador for Washington sea otters.”
Rialto couldn’t stay at the Seattle Aquarium, which doesn’t have enough room for another male otter. Vancouver was next in line for a new otter. “Welcome home Rialto,” said a hand-written message on a white board in his nursery.
Dolf Dejong, general manager of the Vancouver Aquarium, stopped by to see the newest arrival, whom he had visited in Seattle when Rialto had been rescued. “He has grown so much, he was so small, and now look at him.
“We are so very glad he is here.”
In his new environment and just out of the transport crate, Rialto swims around a small pool at the Vancouver Aquarium. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)