PINE KNOLL SHORES, N.C. —After you enter the N.C. Aquarium, one of the first displays you'll come to is the Piedmont Gallery. And chances are good you'll tarry for a good, long while at the otter exhibit.
When all three otters are up, around and in motion, it's mesmerizing to watch. They're fascinating creatures, jetting through the water like miniature furry torpedoes as they catapult back and forth behind the glass.
"The otter exhibit is one of our most popular, and you can see why," says Julie Powers, the aquarium's public relations coordinator. "And it's no coincidence that they're in the Piedmont Gallery, where the message is that the human hand has changed the environment a lot.
"Otters are a particularly poignant example because they were very nearly extinct in North Carolina at one time. But through conservation and reintroduction efforts, they're once again present in all 100 counties. They're a conservation success story."
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The otter exhibit dates back to 2006, when the aquarium reopened after an ambitious overhaul and refurbishment that tripled the facility's size. Other attractions include interactive displays where you can touch manta rays and other sea creatures; an outdoor boardwalk through a coastal marsh; and a "Living Shipwreck" aquarium with more than 800 tropical fish and a handful of large sharks.
At first, the otter exhibit had two male river otters — Neuse and Pungo, named after the rivers in North Carolina. Most of the animals in the aquarium aren't named, to convey that they're wild animals. But it was useful to name the otters for training purposes.
The exhibit's third otter took up residence there in 2008. That spring, a motorist saw a dead female otter by the side of the road near White Lake and found her pup in a nearby ditch. So the motorist contacted the aquarium.
Christened Eno, the baby otter wound up in the care of Meredith Owens, the aquarium's otter keeper. She raised Eno, bottle-feeding him and teaching him to swim just as his mother would have.
"Swimming is not instinctual behavior for otters, believe it or not," Owens says. "He hated the water at first — 'This is wet, cold, gross; where's my warm bed?' — but he did take to it eventually. The exhibit has a video of his very first swim, when he went in and right back out of the baby pool. He just wasn't having it until I got in, too, and he'd paddle after me."
Eventually, Eno got the hang of swimming. And he grew big enough to be introduced to Neuse and Pungo, which was not a simple procedure. Male otters are territorial, so the introduction had to happen gradually — by smell and by sight before they were actually in each other's presence.
Now they all get along famously, play-fighting like cats and frolicking in the water. It's hard for the untrained observer to tell them apart, but Owens says there are differences.
"It's a bit like having triplets," Owens says. "They have different facial features. But the easiest way to tell is that Neuse is the largest and has a little bit of a belly while Eno is the smallest, fastest and most active. Eno likes to float on his back, which sea otters do more than river otters. I think I must have taught him that at some point."
Eno also has an unusual swim pattern and is quite adept at back-flipping. Owens says the aquarium's staff jokingly calls him "Eno Phelps," after Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Michael Phelps.
Fortunately, otters also spend a lot of time sleeping. Otherwise, no one might leave the Piedmont Gallery to see the rest of the aquarium.
"When they're awake, otters do everything top-speed, in constant motion," Powers says. "They rough-house a lot. But they do sleep a lot and they look so peaceful, just completely and totally asleep. 'Otterly relaxed,' we call it. I'm envious."