Rialto the rescued sea otter, once lost and near death on the Washington coast, today is a thriving youngster, feasting on fresh seafood and polishing his retrieving skills.
Revived and restored to health at the Seattle Aquarium, which took him in on Aug. 1, 2016, Rialto was moved to the Vancouver Aquarium, his permanent home, a month and a half later. Once a sickly pup so fragile his survival was in doubt, and so small that he could fit on a place mat, today Rialto is as big as a 6-month-old Labrador retriever puppy, and just as lively.
Since arriving at Vancouver, he has socially progressed from a pup accustomed only to human contact – because he was stranded so young – to a rambunctious young otter, happy with the company of other otters in their aquarium habitat.
“To see him go from a hand-raised pup to a real otter, interacting with other otters, has been so rewarding,” said Kristi Heffron, senior marine-mammal trainer at the Vancouver Aquarium. Heffron also helped Shawn Larson, head of Rialto’s care team at the Seattle Aquarium, provide 24-hour care for Rialto as a young pup.
That continuity of care helped when Rialto moved to Vancouver. “He was really good at adjusting,” Heffron said. “We had that great crossover; when he came up here we already had that relationship.”
Since he arrived, Rialto has learned a growing suite of skills to enable staff to care for him, Heffron said. He can offer a paw when asked; get in and out of a kennel or on a scale to be weighed, allow himself to be touched on his belly or back, get in and out of the water on a hand signal, follow a trainer if asked, and gently take food by hand.
A good thing: Rialto has his adult teeth now, and they are impressive, with molars and jaw muscles powerful enough to crush shells. Every day he eats a quarter of his weight in fresh, sustainably caught, restaurant-grade seafood, including capelin, shrimp, clams, squid and pollock.
He’s grown to about 58 pounds, and his face has transformed from a fuzzy, round, plump-cheeked baby face to the sleek, streamlined head of a mature sea otter. Underwater he is one swoosh of smooth motion, silvery air bubbles streaming from his thick coat as he powers through the water.
Long a big fan of ice – he used to sleep in his crib at the Seattle Aquarium with a plastic bag of cubes tucked under his head – Rialto still loves ice the best of all his toys, Heffron said.
Among his favorite ice toys are ice blocks the size of cupcakes that he can bash on the rocks of his habitat, breaking them open to get at food treats frozen inside.
Rialto washed up alone in 2016 on Rialto Beach (hence his name) in Olympic National Park, where he was spotted by beach walkers and then reported stranded by a park ranger. He didn’t have long to live before Dyanna Lambourn, the marine-mammal stranding coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, responded to the call for help and drove Rialto to the Seattle Aquarium, which agreed to take him in for rehabilitation.
Orphaned so young, he was not releasable to the wild. Rialto is the only Washington sea otter in captivity, and he is one of six rescued sea otters at the Vancouver Aquarium.
Hunted for their luxurious 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 Washington 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 the kelp forests that would normally be present, 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, frolicking in large groups called rafts. Homebodies, they never go far from where they were born, and they stick together, even “holding hands” in their sleep so as not to drift apart.
For Rialto, life at the aquarium includes a round of six feedings each day, along with lessons and play to keep his mind active.
Rialto will be 2 years old in July, and his bond with Heffron and with the other otters continues to grow. As she hand-feeds him, Rialto fixes her with a steady gaze with deep brown eyes, attentive, calm and knowing with the gentle gesture of a hand signal just what to do next. To communicate, the two have created a language of words associated with gestures that is all their own.
Lately they are working on Rialto’s retrieving skills, to enhance his enjoyment of playing with toys.
When he’s not feasting or romping with his pals, Rialto, like most sea otters, fastidiously grooms. Sea otters have the densest coat of any mammal. If you were to touch Rialto, you would feel more hairs under just your thumb than are on an entire human head. His blond, fuzzy natal pelage has given way to the lush, chocolate brown coat of an adult.
To maintain the heat-trapping insulation of his thick fur, Rialto has to keep it meticulously fluffed and clean. Using his paws and tongue, and rolling his supple body every which way, Rialto is nearly always grooming, to keep himself sleek and smooth.
His high metabolism also helps keep him warm – one reason sea otters have to eat so much is to keep their body temperature up.
He also blows warm air into his fur and can move it around his body like a sweater. A sea otter’s skin is a loose fit, with folds under the arms in which otters in the wild stash rocks and other tools for breaking open their food. In the aquarium, Rialto will use his pockets to stash a snack for later.
Seattle fans can always keep in touch with Rialto’s rumpus – watchable on the aquarium’s sea otter cam. He’s even more lively right after he eats. Stoked on sea food, all the otters zoom around their tank, hop up on rocks, spy hop in the water, swirl, twirl and dive.
“He’s just so curious,” Heffron said of Rialto. “And playful.”