Last May, a special baby was born in Seattle. His name is Tichuk, and he is a sea otter. He is special because sea otters are rare animals, and Tichuk is the first sea otter to be born in captivity and survive.
Sea otters are the smallest mammals that live in the ocean. When fully grown , they are about four feet long, weigh 60 to 90 pounds, and have foot-long tails that help them swim. They have beautiful fur that keeps them warm in the winter and cool in the summer. But the fur has to be kept wet, so the animals spend most of their time in the water -- playing, grooming themselves, hunting for food, or floating lazily on their backs.
Tichuk lives in the Seattle Aquarium. He has a mother named Etika, a father named Tak, and two aunts, named Kiskata and Katsko.
During his first two months, Tichuk's mother stayed close to him all the time. She fed and washed him, and he slept cradled in her arms while she float on her back. But as he got older, she would let him play with the other sea otters.
Sea otters love to play, and Tichuk and his Aunt Katsko often wrestle with each other, rolling over and over in the water.
The Directors of the aquarium don't teach their sea otters and seals any tricks, because they think just watching animals play and swim is more fun.
Sea otters can stay under water for more than four minutes. They can dive 180 feet or more to find rock fish, sea urchins, crabs, clams, and squid to eat. The otter pool in the Seattle Aquarium has a big window under the water so people can watch the animals dive to the bottom.
A sea otter floats on his back when he eats. He is also one of the few animals to use a tool -- he sometimes uses a rock to break open his shellfish dinner. He eats more each day than a lion does, and it costs more to feed him in captivity than it does to feed an elephant.
Two hundred years ago there were sea otters up and down the Pacific coast from Alaska to Baja California. But because of their beautiful fur, they were hunted nearly to extinction.
In 1911, when a new law made it illegal to kill a sea otter, scientists thought the animal might already be extinct. In fact, there weren't any sea otters spotted off California again until 1938, when some were seen near Monterey. A 120- mile-long refuge was set up for them there, under federal government protection.
Now, the sea otter population has grown so much that fishermen say the animals are destroying valuable shellfish beds outside the refuge. The fishermen want the government to keep the otter population down. Conservationists, however, say there are fewer shellfish in the water because the fishermen have been harvesting too many clams, abalone, and other seafood delicacies each year.
Today, scientists estimate there are still only about 2,000 sea otters in California, and 60,000 in the world.
That's why they are so happy about Tichuk's birth. It gives them the opportunity to study the family life of sea otters close up, so they will know more about how the animals should be treated in the wild.