Get To Know Sekiu The Sea Otter: Caretaker Q&A

Sea otter Sekiu stretching her head out of the water while swimming in the sea otter habitat at the Seattle Aquarium.
Sekiu was born right here at the Seattle Aquarium on January 14, 2012!

We recently shared an amazing array of fascinating facts about sea otters (here’s a fave: they have up to 10 times more hairs in a square inch of fur than you have on your entire head!). Now we’re going to take a deep dive with our own Sekiu and her “roomie,” Mishka. Our own Caroline Hempstead, lead animal care specialist for sea otters, gave us some great, insider-only details about this dynamic duo—as well as what it took for her to land her dream job as their caretaker.

Q: What’s an average day like for Sekiu and Mishka at the Aquarium, compared to an average day for a sea otter living in the wild?

A: For a sea otter, life at the Aquarium is a bit like a vacation compared to life in the wild, where an average day is spent working around the clock in order to stay fed, warm and healthy. Sea otters need to consume 25 percent of their body weight in seafood every day, so searching for food takes a lot of their time. They’re also constantly grooming their fur to retain its waterproofing and insulating qualities. Resting is key to survival as well, since searching for food and grooming burns an immense amount of calories—especially in the frigid waters of the Pacific.

Sekiu and Mishka have it easy by comparison! Their caretakers deliver every meal—nine per day, to be exact—by hand from dawn to dusk. Their diet consists of restaurant-quality seafood: Dungeness crab, Penn Cove mussels, squid, shrimp, capelin, herring, surf clam and butter clam. And, while they still need to spend time grooming their fur and resting like their wild counterparts, not having to hunt and collect their own food allows them more time to play. We offer enrichment in all different forms, from live food—they love to crack open and devour live oysters and manila clams!—to puzzle toys, ice treats and changes to their habitat like increasing water flow, direction or level, or even shifting them to a different habitat.

Fast fact: Sea otters need their incredibly dense fur to stay warm because, unlike other marine mammals like harbor seals, they don’t have a blubber layer for added insulation. They meticulously groom their fur by rubbing and blowing into it.

Q: What would you say are the top things people can do to help sea otters thrive in the wild?

A: First, purchase sustainable seafood, which keeps our oceans healthier and allows all marine species to prosper. Next, avoid single-use plastics and properly dispose of toxic chemicals and oils. Debris—whether it’s large or microscopic, solid or liquid—is harmful to any living species and in most cases end up in our waterways. Sea otters need a healthy ocean to survive so by taking care of our planet, we’re also taking care of sea otters everywhere, including Sekiu and Mishka at the Aquarium.

Fast fact: Every year, 11 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean. That’s the equivalent of one garbage truck full of plastic going into the ocean every single minute of every single day! You can help keep plastic out of the ocean—visit our take action page to get started.

Q: You’re an ultimate insider when it comes to Sekiu and Mishka. What can you tell us about their likes and dislikes? 

A: Just like us, or our pets at home, Sekiu and Mishka have their favorite and least favorite foods. If given the choice, Sekiu prefers Dungeness crab over any other food item and will devour a whole crab within minutes. It’s one of my favorite feeds to watch as she literally tears into the crab limb by limb without hesitation. All you hear is crunch, crunch, crunch! 

Mishka’s favorite food is shrimp. She will often store shrimp tails in her armpits, so she can eat all of them at the end of her meal—saving the best for last! 

Fast fact: Crab and shrimp provide the sea otters with good fiber, since they eat not only the meat, but also some of the shell—which helps them digest and process the food properly. 

Q: It must be amazing to work so closely with Sekiu and Mishka. What was your career path?

A: After earning my bachelor’s degree in marine biology and having a few other fun and exciting jobs in the marine field, I decided to volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium. I was hired soon after and worked in all the animal life science departments. It soon became apparent that sea otters were becoming my favorite. With a couple more years under my belt, I landed my dream job—caring for the sea otters! I not only oversee the care of our sea otters, I also get to conduct sea otter surveys and research in Washington. And now I’ve been working here for 24 years. Time flies when you’re having fun!

Interested in a career like Caroline’s? Check out our Ocean Career Series webpage—and watch this video featuring some of our amazing animal care staff!

Q: If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, what would you suggest as far as education and training?

A: I’d recommend an educational background in animal science, animal behavior or marine biology to get a better understanding of animal biology. And it’s essential to obtain hands-on work experience in a zoo or aquarium setting. You can start like I did and become a volunteer, or apply for an internship to get your feet wet with our sea otters.

Bonus video!
Learn more about sea otters as Caroline answers questions from Seattle Aquarium members.

Now that you’ve gotten to know Sekiu and Mishka, learn more about this amazing species on our sea otter webpage. Even better, come see them in person—and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to spot Caroline in their habitat as well! Plan your visit to the Seattle Aquarium today

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