Aquarium of the Pacific’s rescued otters chew their way through Otter Bowl 2020

Not a 49ers or Chiefs fan? Root for the otters.

One of the Aquarium of the Pacific's four otters eating during Otter Bowl 2020, on Sunday, Feb. 2.

Kristen Naeem | Signal Tribune

One of the Aquarium of the Pacific's four otters eating during Otter Bowl 2020, on Sunday, Feb. 2.

Spectators gathered to cheer on a different type of Super Bowl competitor on Sunday, Feb.2, at the Aquarium of Pacific’s Sixth Annual Otter Bowl.

From the back wall right up to the glass, the room displaying the otter exhibit was packed with smiling guests with cell phones raised over their heads as the aquarium’s four otters competed in a variety of enrichment activities.

Despite the crowd, the otters were unfazed and kept to the tasks at hand, which consisted mostly of snacking and then finding more snacks in their enclosure. The winner of Otter Bowl was decided by who ate the most.

Otter food, like frozen clams, was located around the enclosure, often inside toys and tubes, for the competitors to try to find. Usually, during otter presentations at the aquarium the animals simply respond to commands for treats.

“It’s always good to keep things variable for them,” Aquarium of the Pacific staff member Katie Finch told the Signal Tribune. “They’re really smart animals, so variety is always really important. Sometimes, we do these feeds, which are kind of like a scavenger hunt. Some of the food is just clams that have been frozen in these different little shapes, and [we] added a little bit of food coloring to make them look cute and fun. But some of them are food puzzles for them to have to figure out, so they have to figure out how to get their shrimp and clams out of the toy. It’s good enrichment for them.”

While all four otters stuffed their faces as much as they could, a champion eventually munched her way to victory. Despite her previous enthusiasm for all food during the competition, when Otter Bowl champ Betty was presented with her prize, a giant cupcake for otters–– she immediately fled.

Betty remained suspicious of the large orange and yellow cupcake as aquarium staff wrapped up Otter Bowl, the gentle coaxing of her handlers not enough to convince her.

The trophy cupcake was left in the otter enclosure in case any of Betty’s peers were interested.

The four otters living at the Aquarium of the Pacific were part of the Sea Otter Program, a network of wildlife rescue groups and aquariums that work together to rescue and rehabilitate injured, stranded and orphaned otters. Occasionally, as in the case of the aquarium’s four females, an otter in the program can’t be fully rehabilitated and relies too much on human care, unable to adapt to the wild. In these cases, the otters are housed in aquarium’s where they can be properly taken care of.

While the Aquarium of the Pacific’s otters are safely in the care of marine experts, the rest of their species has been left vulnerable by human action. Issues such as agricultural run off, coastal development, habitat loss and unsustainable fishing practices have afflicted California’s otter population for generations, despite its status as a protected species.

Otters are a keystone species, necessary to the health of California’s kelp forests. Without enough otters to eat them, sea urchins devour kelp forests until they are left barren, causing entire ecosystems to fall apart.

According to the Aquarium of the Pacific’s website, humans should avoid flushing cat feces, oil, fertilizer and other chemicals that pose a hazard to sea otter health down the toilet or sink, as it eventually makes its way to sea.

Finch also recommended using the Seafood Watch app and visiting the online page of the aquarium’s program, Seafood for the Future, to learn more about sustainable seafood sources.

“There’s lots of little ways that people can make a difference. It does take a little bit of extra research but places like [the Aquarium of the Pacific are trying to make the information as available as possible for people,” Finch said.