Critters take center stage

Critters take center stage

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North American river otter Pippi swims in the exhibit “Otters & Their Waters,” which opens Feb. 26 at Mote Aquarium in Sarasota, Fla. Photo: Alexis Balinski/Mote Marine Laboratory

Learn all about otters at a recently opened exhibit, Otters & Their Water, at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. The exhibit features three orphaned North American river otters—Huck, Pippi, and Jane—that have been under the careful supervision of Mote staff after arriving at the facility in December 2015.

The exhibit is an opportunity for visitors to learn about the importance of watershed habitats—prime real estate for river otters. Watersheds perform the vital geographical and ecological function of draining water toward oceans, lakes, rivers, and estuaries.

Otters love scooting from land to water and back. With that in mind, Mote Marine staff created a two-level land and water habitat area filled with fun and stimulating features. The habitat also includes a den where the otters can sleep. “The exhibit has a slide that leads into a pool of water,” says Mote biologist Amanda Foltz, who cares for them. “They are like little kids going up and down the slide. It really is fun to watch.”

Staff members are on hand daily to describe how the otters were rescued, rehabilitated and trained, and demonstrate their intelligence—for example, they’ve been taught to present parts of their bodies for medical checks and walk into a special crate to be weighed.

In school, at sea

Mote Marine also helps at-risk youth in the Tampa Bay region via a “floating classroom” partnership with the AMIkids Boat Program. AMIkids is a Tampa-based nonprofit that helps transform the lives and futures of young juvenile offenders.

The floating classroom is Orlando’s Rose, a 65-foot vessel donated in 2014 by Bill and Carol Barrows that launches near the Gandy Bridge spanning Tampa Bay. She carries AMIkids participants on half-day excursions focusing on biodiversity and watershed education. During their time at sea, program participants gather and identify marine organisms and learn how the specimens interact with their environment. They even get to drive the boat after passing a BoatU.S. safety curriculum, a swimming test and other prerequisites.

“We work with kids that have been part of the court system or those we are trying to keep from going into the court system. These are kids that might not have ever been on a boat before,” said Jordan Carroll, AMIkids boatyard development assistant. “It’s all about promoting them to be better members of society. Maybe they’ll want to be captains or dive instructors; maybe they’ll figure out a career path.”

Mote staff members help the boat program participants perform research tasks such as taking salinity content measurements and studying marine organism specimens under microscopes. The goal, Carroll says, is to encourage the kids to be stewards of the environment and spark in them an interest in waterways and boating safety. “The biggest thing is getting the kids out on the water, and through that, they could form a life passion.”

— By Brian Hartz, Southern Boating Magazine May 2016