Sea otters, belugas at Chicago’s Shedd

Rain tends to drive tourists indoors, but that’s not entirely why the soggy line to enter Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium was a block long on a recent weekday. Many came to see what a pregnant whale looks like, since the Shedd had just announced that two of its seven belugas will give birth this fall.

The girls seem to be in great shape, based on their agreeable moods and sleek, carefree dips and dives during a narrated beluga training session, conducted daily by aquarium staff at the Shedd’s newly enlarged and reopened Oceanarium.

But miracles of life certainly don’t stop with one species or gestation, as another glass-walled tank at this manmade water world proves. For now, all eyes seem to be on bulging belugas, but a creature near the opposite end of life has a story no less astonishing.

Twenty years ago, sea otter Kenai (Ken-EYE) was brought to Chicago as a pup, the victim of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The disastrous dumping of 10.8 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound meant instant death for thousands of marine mammals, including 2,000 sea otters.

Under normal circumstances, two layers of thick fur trap air bubbles and keep sea otters warm. The coats are dense – up to 1 million hairs per square inch – and the animals are meticulous and near-constant groomers. Vanity has nothing to do with it: Debris-free coats are lifesavers, preventing hypothermia when water is frigid, since sea otters have no layer of blubber to insulate them.

The 1989 oil spill grossly matted otters’ coats, and the young Kenai was no exception. The difference between death and rescue was pure luck; Kenai and three other orphaned pups were flown to Chicago, where they became the Shedd’s first foray into sea otter rehabilitation.

Each pup got a 40-minute shampoo, then a 40-minute rinse, to remove the crude oil from its fur. That marked the beginning of a dramatically new life for this quartet, which was too young to be returned to its natural environment.

In the wild, a sea otter averages 10 to 12 years of life. So Kenai, the only one of the Exxon Valdez pups still alive, has exceeded everybody’s expectations. Shedd staff describe him as “geriatric” and “receiving specialized care.”

Kenai and four other sea otters playfully dive. spin and twist at will under water as they float, rub and tidy up their fur. They are hearty eaters whose daily intake of sea urchins, clams, crabs and fish equals about one-fourth of their weight.

Thanks to Kenai and his peers, the Shedd has become an expert in sea otter rehab, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in this endeavor, to rescue other orphans.

As for the pregnant beluga whales – Puiji (pee-EE-jee) and Naya (Ni-ya), they remain publicly active. “The best thing for both whales is to keep their activity levels consistent,” says the Shedd’s Ken Ramirez. “Training sessions provide physical and mental stimulation for the belugas and give our animal care and animal health staff regular opportunities to observe and interact with both whales.”

Neither mother-to-be will participate in the aquarium’s new marine mammal show or the beluga encounter program, but look for their calves’ father, Naluark (nah-LOO-ark), whose youngest offspring (Miki – MEE-key) was born in 2007 to one of the other Shedd belugas.

Both the sea otter and beluga whale are endangered species. For more: www.fws.gov/endangered.

For more about the Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago: www.sheddaquarium.org, 312-386-7080.

One of the most popular areas for children at the Shedd’s newly enlarged Oceanarium is the Penguin Play Area. The challenge to “be a penguin” means sliding down a faux ice slide, putting on a penguin vest and wings, carrying around penguin-sized egs and crawling through pint-sized caverns.

All happens within eyesight of real penguins, which makes you wonder which species ends up more amused or confused.

Earth’s inhabitants rely on unpolluted water, and Kenai’s story is but one example. For additional fodder for thought, check out the “Water” exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum, a short walk from the Shedd Aquarium.

You’ll learn that aquatic animals make up 60 percent of all endangered species in the U.S., and that 1 billion people worldwide don’t get enough water to keep them healthy. The average person in our part of the world uses 100-130 gallons of water daily but only needs 5 gallons for basic needs (drinking, cooking, cleaning).

Although almost 71 percent of the planet is covered with water, fresh water makes up only 3 percent and a fraction of 1 percent supports all life on land.

“Water” ends Sept. 20. For more about the Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago: www.fieldmuseum.org, 312-922-9410. The website includes ways to calculate your own water usage.