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Originally published January 14, 2012 at 5:05 PM | Page modified January 15, 2012 at 12:07 PM

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It's a sea-otter pup at Seattle Aquarium!

A newborn otter pup was on display Saturday at the Seattle Aquarium.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The article, about a sea-otter pup just born today, is great. Awesome, in fact. Will... MORE
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The Seattle Aquarium's sea-otter pup arrived around 5 a.m. Saturday, just in time for aquarium visitors to watch the fluffy newborn nurse for the first time and bond with its mother behind the exhibit glass.

Things seemed to be going well for the new pup and second-time mother Aniak Saturday. The pup was born quickly, between the time a staff member checked on Aniak at 4:40 a.m. and when he returned to find the newborn at 5:05 a.m.

Staff had been watching Aniak around the clock.

The pup started nursing a few hours later, a very good sign. As visitors crowded around the glass Saturday, Aniak floated on her back, grooming the pup while it rested on her belly. Occasionally, she set it on the ledge of the pool, then scooped it up again.

For aquarium staff who have been monitoring the northern sea otter's pregnancy since June, the birth was a relief and cause for celebration. The otters are air-breathing mammals, but they are born underwater, so a live birth is a big hurdle.

Right away, an otter-watch team was set up outside the exhibit with a laptop and a staff person to record data about mother and pup every five minutes: eating, nursing, grooming.

"They're very fragile creatures, so they're dependent on mom," said Tim Kuniholm, an aquarium spokesman.

The Seattle Aquarium was the first in the world to successfully breed northern sea otters with the birth of Tichuk in 1979. More recently, it hasn't intentionally bred its otters, to leave more room for rescue animals, but Aniak's birth-control medication wore off before aquarium staff expected it to.

To replicate what happens in the wild, where mother otters isolate themselves for birth, the aquarium sent the pup's father to the Oregon Zoo in Portland for a visit they jokingly called "paternity leave." Having him around could make Aniak nervous and interfere with her care for the newborn.

Visitors snapped pictures of the fuzzy arrival Saturday, oohing and laughing and declaring the pup "adorable" and "amazing." Otter pups weigh about 3 ½ pounds at birth and are the size of a football.

Among the crowd on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the pup Saturday was marine biology student Cameron Donegan, 23.

She has loved the otters since the second grade, when she wrote a seven-page letter to the aquarium's mammal curator — then became too embarrassed to mail it. She started volunteering with the otters at 16. They are goofy and curious, she said, but the thing she loves most about them?

"The first thing that sticks out is just how fuzzy they are," she said.

Fuzzy is an understatement. Otter pups have an extra-fluffy layer of fur for warmth and so they can float while their mothers hunt. They shed their baby fluff after about a month, allowing them to swim and dive.

Indeed, the pup is so fluffy that aquarium staff won't be able to determine its gender for a week or two. If it's a female, it will likely stay in Seattle, but a male would probably be transferred to another aquarium.

Regardless, the public will be asked to help name it.

"It's really cute," said Rosie Thompson, 12, of Bellingham, as she watched the otters with her aunt and sister. "I didn't know it was gonna be really, really fluffy."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.

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