Icy treats show love for Georgia Aquarium’s sea otters


FIVE FACTS ABOUT SEA OTTERS AT GEORGIA AQUARIUM

  • Adult males average 65 pounds and adult females average 45 pounds. (Oz is the biggest at the Georgia Aquarium at 65 pounds.)
  • The male sea otter lives to be about 10 to 15 years old in the wild, while the female's life span is about 15 to 20 years. Their life spans are usually longer in an aquarium or zoo setting. (Gracie is the oldest at the Georgia Aquarium at 17 years old.)
  • Like other sea otters, the bodies of the sea otters at the aquarium are covered in a dense fur that must be constantly groomed to maintain its insulating properties and cleanliness. The thick coat helps to maintain the sea otter's body temperature in the cold ocean water. (The fur of the sea otter is the densest of all mammals at about 350,000 to 1,000,000 hairs per square inch, compared to dogs that have only 1,000 to 60,000 hairs per square inch.)
  • Sea otters must eat 20 to 25 percent of their body weight every day to maintain normal body temperature.

  • Classified as a marine "fissiped," the sea otter is an aquatic carnivore that is well-adapted for its life at sea. The digits on its front paws are separated and covered, similar to mittens. Its claws are retractable and the front paws have rough pads. These features help sea otters more easily grasp their slippery or spiny prey. On the hind paws, the pads are reduced and may be absent, except on the toes. The fifth digit or little toe is longer than all other otters, allowing the sea otter to spread its webbing wider when swimming.

Source: Georgia Aquarium

Oz leaps onto a rocklike platform, scoots a yellow Easter “egg” under his armpit and disappears into chilly water. He leaps back — this time for an icy version of a yellow Peep.

Volunteer Heidi Groom watches and waits as Oz stares at a wide array of frozen treats. She knows exactly what Oz — the biggest sea otter at the Georgia Aquarium — is really after: the big ice treats.

Sure enough, Oz splashes out of the water to claim a big pink Easter basket and then slithers toward the biggest ice creation of all — a large Easter bunny with blended scallops inside.

For several years, Groom has designed and created ornate fish-filled frozen goodies for the five sea otters at the aquarium.

Groom holds the record at the Georgia Aquarium for most volunteer hours — recently surpassing 9,500 hours. One of 1,800 volunteers at the aquarium, Groom started volunteering in 2006, shortly after the aquarium opened in 2005. She was first a greeter, and after completing more training, she was allowed to work more closely with the animals.

Her holiday-inspired ice sculptures go back years after someone suggested making an ice treat in the shape of a pumpkin. She used a Bundt cake pan to make it. From there, she began working with molds in all shapes and sizes from hearts to coins to ghosts and bunnies.

Groom, 61, of Canton, volunteers up to 40 hours a week, helping with everything from cleaning and maintaining exhibits to assisting with food preparation for animals.

On a recent morning, the elaborate array of icy Easter-themed snacks rested on a bed of shaved ice. Groom finished the display with a few squirts of water with green food coloring on the shaved ice. While the clam-sicles and other ice treats are adorable and certain crowd pleasers, they are mainly designed to help keep the otters physically and mentally stimulated. In fact, Jennifer Odell, curator of mammals and birds, calls the ice sculptures “ice enrichment.”

“The goal of providing any of this type of enrichment to any of the animals is to encourage natural behavior, such as foraging, to provide physical and mental stimulation to the animals and to make each day different and dynamic,” Odell said. “A side benefit is that it really engages our guests, encouraging them to learn more about the animals and, we hope, connecting them to the value of the animal world.”

Groom said she’ll never forget the reaction of children on St. Patrick’s Day when Oz pulled ice treats in the shape of a pot of gold into the water. The kids, pressed up against the glass, were mesmerized.

“And one of the boys said, ‘I want to be a sea otter when I grow up,’” Groom said.

Groom spent several hours working on the Easter-themed ice goodies, going well into the evening to get everything ready for the following morning. She turned to clams for “chocolate” bunnies. She freezes the pieces in stages to embed various elements and crunch, even intrigue into the creations.

She strategically places clam and other seafood treats deep into the ice sculptures to allow the sea otters to use their claws to extract the food, essentially mimicking how they would forage for food in the wild.

She knows the sea otter Cruz likes to nibble on little frozen bits, so she used little bits of shrimp for the eyes on the frozen bunny.

Groom remembers seeing sea otters along the shore in southern California as a child. She always had an affinity for these animals with long, stout bodies and thick whiskers on the cheeks. Her children also share her interest in marine biology (her son Corey Groom works at the aquarium as an animal care and training specialist).

“I have the time to do this. And God blessed me with a lot of energy,” said Groom, clad in khakis, and a navy blue Georgia Aquarium T-shirt, modest about her volunteering. “And I love it. I love otters. They are so curious. They are aware of you. They are a piece of natural history.”

She started working with ice by making basic ice blocks for otters. Little by little, Groom channeled her time and creativity into these more fancy frozen treats.

Groom, who has no formal training in confectionery or ice sculpture design, said her interest in fancy desserts for otters doesn’t cross over into humans.

“If I make a pan of brownies, I just slather on frosting and don’t think much about it,” she said.

When it comes to the ice treats for otters, she’s meticulous.

“It’s not perfect,” she said, seeming crestfallen, as she looked at the ice sculptures.

But after seeing the otters tackle the treats, she smiled.

"They are perfect."