MONTEREY, Calif.--It's 1:30 in the afternoon and three of the most famous residents of this coastal town are getting ready for lunch. A very large crowd has gathered to watch.
These, of course, are Joy, Mae, and Abby, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's three resident sea otters, and it's standing-room only up against the glass separating visitors from the animals as several staff members appear with small buckets full of shrimp, clams, and squid.
I've come to the aquarium as part of Road Trip 2012, and I've been treated to a very special viewing spot just above the otters' enclosure where I can take in the wonderful spectacle without having to compete with dozens of kids, or anyone else for that matter.
Monterey Bay Aquarium: Otters, jellies, robot -- oh my! (pictures) See full gallery
The otters are clearly one of, if not the, chief attractions here -- and that's saying a lot at what is probably the world's most famous aquarium. Talking to Steve Vogel, the curator, whose career had included five previous stops, I asked him for his biased opinion on where his current employer stacks up. "Each place I've worked has done something well," Vogel said. "This place does everything well. [They all] wanted to be the Monterey Bay Aquarium of, [say], South Carolina."
So when this world-class institution came calling, Vogel didn't blink.
Back in the enclosure, the team of otter specialists is busy doling out lunch. And lots of it. Each sea otter will eat about a third of its body weight in seafood every day. There are three daily public feedings, but these 45- to 50-pound marine mammals need more food than that. So there are often two more meals on an average day.
Joy is 13 years old, and Mae is 11. Both serve as "surrogate moms" for the many wild sea otters that find themselves being brought to the aquarium when they've gotten sick, injured, or orphaned, and need rehabilitation before being returned to nature.
What's most important in a situation like that is that the newcomers have little or no encounters with humans because it is essential they not become accustomed to us. Wild otters have no business interacting with people, and vice versa. So when the aquarium has an otter visitor from outside, any interactions with aquarium staff involves those personnel putting on all kinds of strange gear that makes them look entirely un-person-like. Indeed, the hope is they will become scared of people -- and stay away in the future.
Still, during their time in residence, they'll have Joy and Mae there with them so they can continue having otter company.
As the afternoon feeding begins, the otter "aquarists" are also taking care of some necessary training. There are toys to play with, and there are spoken directions to follow. And then there is the carrying case.
As I watch from just overhead, I see something very odd. Abby is jumping out of the water and walking -- waddling? -- right up to a carrying case that looks like a huge cat carrier. And she very carefully is sticking her head right in.
Later, I asked otter aquarist Hannah Ban-Weiss why Abby was doing that. The answer, it seems, is all about positive reinforcement. The 5-year-old otter has only recently arrived at the Monterey Bay Aquarium -- in a trade with Sea World in San Diego for another otter. And by associating the case with food, the trainers are ensuring that Abby thinks that getting inside it is something fun, or rewarding. The point? That if she's ever sick or injured, or needs to be transported for some reason, they can pull out the case, and not worry that she'll fight.
Not long after, Abby does something else noteworthy: While she's chowing down on a piece of seafood, she's also clutching some sort of green ball. This is one multi-tasking otter. And there are toys everywhere in the enclosure, plus many others that haven't found there way in today.
Ban-Weiss explained that otters are extremely curious animals, and that they need constant distractions. Otherwise, they can get in trouble. For example, they can grab little rocks and pound them against things such as the windows at the edge of their enclosure. This can cause, and has caused, damage.
"When they're not busy, they can be destructive. We need to keep them stimulated. Smart and curious is not a good combination," she joked.
My hosts have put together a great day for me, with the special view of the sea otter feeding taking the cake. But they've also arranged a surprise -- Vogel is launching a small remote-operated vehicle (ROV) into the aquarium's giant Open Sea tank, and I get to watch and talk to him while he does it.
The ROV has a couple of significant purposes. First, it has a camera on it that can shoot live video and pipe it back to some equipment that Vogel operates on the edge of the tank. The gear includes a digital-video recorder that allows him to save what comes back so he or anyone else that needs to see it can do so later at their convenience. Or, he can watch it live.
That's what he's doing as I look on, in fact. Recently, a ladder inside the tank developed a crack, and Vogel wants to see if repair work that was done is holding. But rather than require a diver to get all suited up and go down to check it out, Vogel can just send the ROV, direct it over to the ladder with a small joystick, and do his examination.
Sometimes, the aquarium puts Great White Sharks in this tank, and when one of those magnificent but deadly animals is in there, it's a major task to do any examinations in the water, or to pull out any animals that happen to have gotten injured or died. Indeed, explained, those sharks require three divers decked out in full chain mail.
Fortunately, he's got the ROV, and it has a small arm with a grasper that can grab all kinds of things -- including badges, keys, or even the occasional radio that falls in.
The ROV is not wireless, however. It trails a very long cable, and that can be a problem from time to time. Though Vogel is generally able to control the little floating robot with no trouble, there is one instance when that's no longer true.
At first, he just tells me what the problem is, even as he's driving the ROV around the tank, and even up against the giant glass window that separates the tank from aquarium visitors who come to see the many species of fish, sharks, tortoises, and others that live behind the glass.
Vogel directs the robot towards the window, and at my urging, wiggles it from side to side, and flashes a red light, so the crowd can see that we're remotely waving to them. Through the video monitor we can see the people behind the glass, and lots of fish swimming by as well. All is fine.
But suddenly he loses control of the ROV. Struggling to get it back, he realizes what's gone wrong. "Right now, there's a turtle in my cable," he said, indicating that the one thing he had told me could go wrong has in fact done so. "I'm getting dragged backward."