Remember when folks celebrated their “Sweet 16” birthdays by partying at the pool? Earlier this month, Judge the Southern sea otter did just that—turn 16, that is. (Arguably, every day is a pool party for our otters.) Happy birthday, Judge!
At 16, Judge is considered a long-lived representative of his species, said Ken Lytwyn, Curator of Mammals at the Aquarium. He’s one of three Southern sea otters at the Aquarium, along with Schuster and Oswald. (Nuka is the only Northern sea otter in our raft.) Most male Southern sea otters live between 10-15 years in captivity.
The Aquarium’s four rescued males comprise the largest group of permanent, resident sea otters in Oregon. Southern sea otters were once abundant along the Oregon Coast, perfectly at home in the formerly extensive kelp forests offshore. After being decimated by fur traders in the 1900s, sea otters were slow to recover, and the kelp forests have since dwindled to fragments. The Southern sea otter is currently considered extinct off Oregon’s coast and is listed under the Endangered Species Act in their existing range in California.
Judge hails from this imperiled population, which numbers approximately 3,000 individuals along the central and southern California coast. Orphaned as a pup, Judge has spent much of his life under human care. Two-week-old Judge stranded on Asilomar Beach, in Pacific Grove, CA on June 25th, 2000. He was taken to Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) for care and rehabilitation and was released soon afterward—but that was far from the last time MBA staff would lay eyes on him.
“Judge didn’t appear to pick up good feeding habits before that initial stranding in 2000, and he developed a habit of approaching people [in kayaks, on docks, etc.], probably in the hopes that they would feed him,” said Lytwyn. Judge was brought back to MBA and released eight separate times for different issues between 2001 and 2003, whereupon he was deemed non-releasable and transferred to Oregon Coast Aquarium.
(It is a little ironic then that, on the day of his “Sweet 16”, Judge—normally so fond of human attention—played aloof to the proceedings, keeping to himself while the other otters devoured his “birthday cake” [a frozen mold of gelatin, crabs and clams] in front of him.)
Judge has delighted visitors at the Aquarium since his arrival in December 2003. As the oldest of the Aquarium’s all-male raft, he’s long been top-otter. Judge can be observed asserting his dominance by wrestling with his much younger pool mates at all hours of the day.
But his dominance is waning, Lytwyn said. “It takes a lot of work to stay on top, and I think Judge is ready to relinquish those duties to someone else.” Judge, for his part, appears to have taken Nuka taken under his wing. The two often cavort together—perhaps Judge is (figuratively) grooming Nuka as his protégé?
Regardless of which otter wins out as alpha male, Judge is “still very healthy and active,” said Lytwyn, and visitors should expect to see him in his usual spots—right against the viewing windows, the closer to people the better—for some time to come. As the most senior Southern sea otter currently residing on the Oregon coast, he’s truly an ambassador for otters in the Pacific Northwest.
Despite sea otters’ perilous position in the wild, people of all ages can help by reducing their use of single-use plastics. These buoyant bits of litter often end up in the ocean, where curious otters sometimes mistake them for food. Additionally, bagging and disposing of cat waste—rather than flushing it—helps reduce otters’ exposure to feline pathogens, to which they are fatally susceptible. These practices are even meaningful for inland residents, as an estimated 80 percent of marine debris originates from land-based sources.
Throughout the summer, visitors can attend sea otter feedings at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. every day.