Oregon Zoo to host Sea Otter Awareness Day, Sept 21

September 15, 2014 - 12:13pm

Daily keeper talks help bring attention to issues sea otters face in the wild

Otter lovers, take note! The Oregon Zoo will host Sea Otter Awareness Day on Sunday, Sept. 21, with activities aimed at showcasing these playful marine mammals and highlighting their critical role in the North Pacific ecosystem. The event kicks off a national awareness week organized by Friends of the Sea Otter.

At 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., visitors can stop by the Steller Cove habitat to hear keeper talks and watch the zoo's three sea otters — old-timers Thelma and Eddie, and the newly arrived 9-month-old Juno — scarf down enrichment treats or participate in training sessions.

"Sea otters are listed as threatened on the Endangered Species list," said keeper Jenny DeGroot, the zoo's sea otter lead. "They eat a lot of invertebrates that filter the seawater, so anything that winds up in the water — pollution, oil spills, etc. — can wind up in the sea otters as well."

Sea Otter Awareness Week began in 2003 with a goal of educating people about these animals, their natural history and the threats they face. Considered a keystone species, sea otters play critical role in the Pacific Coast marine ecosystem, promoting healthy kelp forests, which in turn support thousands of organisms.

Sea otters once ranged along the north Pacific Rim from Japan to Baja California, including along the Oregon coast, and are thought to have numbered between 150,000 to 300,000 animals. Prized for their soft, luxurious fur, the animals were hunted to the brink of extinction during the late 1800s and early 1900s. By 1911, aggressive fur-trapping campaigns had reduced the global sea otter population to around 2,000.

Although now protected against trapping, sea otters are threatened by oil spills, fishing nets and infectious diseases. Biologists estimate the population has dropped by 50 percent over the past 30 years. Wild sea otters have not established colonies off the Oregon coast since 1907, though a few individuals have been sighted, most recently in Depoe Bay in 2009.

Eddie and Thelma have lived at the Oregon Zoo since 2000, and Juno joined them this spring. All three otters were rescued off the coast of California, where they had been found orphaned as pups, and are here on long-term loan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Lacking the skills to survive on their own in the wild, they were initially taken to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for rehabilitation but were eventually deemed non-releasable.

Eddie gained international fame last year when a video about his behind-the-scenes basketball exploits went viral, clocking more than a million views on YouTube. DeGroot trained Eddie to dunk a toy basketball for arthritis therapy. At 16, Eddie is considered geriatric, but age hasn't slowed him down much and he seems to enjoy the exercise — as well as the fishy treats he gets whenever he scores. "He's definitely got game," DeGroot said.