The Bay Area is expected to receive more than two tons of snow this month, but you won’t see it on the streets of San Francisco.
Every Wednesday this December, the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 is hosting River Otter Snow Days—a weekly event in which more than 1,000 pounds of snow is deposited into the North American river otter habitat as part of their ongoing enrichment programs.
Visitors to the aquarium can witness the river otters frolic, slip and slide in their new icy surroundings, spreading undeniable cuteness this holiday season.
To get some insight on the aquarium's resident otters—Shasta, Baxter and Ryer—and their weekly Snow Days, Hoodline spoke with Noel Fong, a biologist with Aquarium of the Bay.
Fong's main responsibility is tending to the river otters. A good portion of that “tending” is developing engaging enrichment programs.
“Enrichment is constantly going on, and it’s a big part of what we do. There are many different types of enrichment; there’s food enrichment, there’s environmental enrichment. Throughout the year we do a lot of enrichment for major holidays, too.”
Snow Days, which has been taking place for the past couple of years, is particularly special for the otters, whose exhibit is indoors. "It doesn’t snow indoors. But river otters are found in places where it does snow. So, we said, ‘Why not try and fill the exhibit full of snow and see what happens?’”
So, do Shasta, Baxter and Ryer enjoy Snow Days?
“The otters loved it,” Fong says. “Our river otters very much enjoy ice to begin with. They like chewing on it, playing in it, things like that. [Snow Days] were an absolute hit. We definitely do it more for their benefit than anything else.”
And those benefits are crucial to the otters’ wellness and overall happiness, Fong tells us.
“The point of enrichment is to change up things for animals and keep them mentally and physically stimulated, getting them to elicit natural behaviors... that they don’t necessarily have to do while here at the aquarium,” notes Fong. "...You know, it would be really boring for you if you had to do the same thing every single day...”
Dousing their habitat in snow isn't the only way to change up the otters' days. Fong and team also give them materials, like hay or wood chips, that they can use to build nests, as they would in the wild. And throughout the month, they'll receive other gifts—like fish-stuffed stockings, ice wreaths and more.
There are only two Wednesdays left to catch the river otters in snowy action. And, in the spirit of giving, a portion of proceeds from aquarium tickets go toward “conservation of the San Francisco Bay and its watershed, which is our big mission,” says Fong.
Your best chance to see the otters active is in the morning or late afternoon, Fong advises. Don’t be surprised if they’re snoozing, though, as Fong notes that “river otters can sleep up to 18 hours a day.”
Here are a few additional shots of Shasta, Baxter and Ryer romping in their very own North Pole.
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