VANCOUVER, B.C. — Rialto is one lucky sea otter.
Once rumpled as a dishrag, too weak to stand and helplessly tumbled by waves, he was stranded and alone when he was discovered near death on Olympic National Park’s Rialto Beach in August 2016.
What a fine time they have had.
In a recent visit, the three were playing inseparably in one swirling twirl of brown fur in an outdoor habitat especially for them at the Vancouver Aquarium. Rialto’s caregivers keep up a steady program of play for the otters, and even a floating box seemed to provide endless interest as Rialto figured his way in, out and around the box bobbing in the water.
He eats voraciously, like all sea otters consuming about a quarter of his body weight every day to stoke the high metabolism that, in addition to his luxuriant fur, keeps him warm in cold water. It costs about $35,000 Canadian a year just to provide the restaurant-grade clams, squid, fish and other seafood that Rialto eats.
He’s highly social and in excellent health, said marine mammal trainer Nicky Garza. “He is very attracted to the windows. He will come and play, whenever we come to the windows he is the one who interacts,” Garza said.
Rialto, now the second-longest of the three young sea otters, has grown to 69 pounds. What a change from when he first arrived at the Seattle Aquarium at just a few weeks old. He was skinny sick, and so small he could fit on a place mat.
Today, Rialto is about the size of a young Labrador retriever — and just as rambunctious and cheery.
Hunted for their fur, the last known wild sea otters in the state were shot at Willapa Bay in 1911. Sea otters were reintroduced to the outer coast of Washington from Alaska populations that are the ancestors of all sea otters in the state today, including Rialto.
Sea otters make the ecology of the outer coast complete. They love to eat sea urchins, and their hunting keeps the urchin population in check. Without the steady pressure of hungry sea otters working the nearshore bottom, urchins multiply and mow down kelp forests, turning the near shore bottom into a sandy barren.
With otter populations rebounding, kelp forests are too, providing a nursery for young fish and a brake on the erosive power of the surf at the near shore. A coastline with otters also is livelier with their presence, as they frolic in large groups called rafts.
Named for the beach where he was found, Rialto was stranded too young ever to be released to the wild.
Since coming to the Vancouver Aquarium, Rialto has been taught lots of skills to help with his care. In addition to allowing himself to be touched, he will present a paw, and even sit still for vaccinations.
Most attempts to rescue sea otters by untrained people end in death or injury to the animal, and often result in injury to the would-be rescuer. You and the animal will both be better off if you seek help from a trained wildlife professional. It is always illegal for anyone to touch a sea otter or other marine mammal, which are protected by federal law, without authorization from a wildlife authority.
Call the following numbers to report the stranding of a live or dead marine mammal:
Washington: 1-877-326-8837 (1-87-SEA-OTTER)
Oregon: 1-800-452-7888 or 1-541-270-6830
Alaska: 1-888-774-7325 California: 1-805-927-3893
Whales, seals and sea lions
Washington and Oregon: 1-866-767-6114
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
He is also great at back flips and particularly loves ice. As a baby at the Seattle Aquarium, he would sleep with his head on a pillow of ice in a bag. At the Vancouver Aquarium, one of Rialto’s favorite pastimes is sitting in a tub of ice and digging to the bottom, making the pieces rattle and fly.
“He’s really doing well. He is gaining weight, learning behaviors, and just being an otter,” said Kristyn Plancarte, another marine mammal trainer at the Vancouver Aquarium.
In the same animal family as weasels, the three young otters are smart and mischievous, Plancarte said. They will hide their toys and mess around with locks, and they have a quick, interactive intelligence.
“People connect with sea otters generally. They are so charismatic, everybody loves otters,” Plancarte said. But Rialto has a following all his own. People from Seattle still make special trips just to see him.”He has a special connection to the people in Seattle,” Plancarte said.
Rialto’s fans also can watch him on the aquarium’s live otter cam.