Georgia Aquarium: Shake Hands with Otters and Other Intimate Encounters

As soon as we arrived, Cruz started chatting, and following us with his soft brown eyes. He seemed to be just as curious about us as we were about him, swimming away, making a roll, then pressing his wet black nose to the window for a closer look.

As we reluctantly turned our attention to our hostess for a short sea otter 101 session, Cruz banged a shell on the side of the tank as if to say, ‘hey, I’m over here.’

If you like to watch these playful pups from afar, let me tell you, getting up close is even better, here’s why.

Our Experience | What To Expect | Know Before You Go |
Encounters Make Memorable Gifts

Georgia Aquarium: Shake Hands with Otters and Other Intimate Encounters

Our sea otter encounter at the Georgia Aquarium was a family affair. Two of my sons and I took my dad, who is 89-years-young to experience it with us. Pop immediately feel in love with Cruz, our main representative.

When I asked him his favorite part of the experience, he said “Being close enough to look him in those soulful eyes. He is so adorable, you just want to touch him.” In fact, we were able to shake hands with the otter, as well as pet his fur and feed him!

My 17-year-old echoed Pop’s sentiment. “In less than an hour I felt like Cruz was our pet, that he truly had fallen for us, as much as we did for him.”

That connection is one reason the Georgia Aquarium offers guests the opportunity to get up close and personal with these sweet creatures, as well as other animals during behind the scenes animal encounters. Guests can feel good knowing proceeds from their experience go toward research and conservation. 

aquarium shake hands with otters at the Georgia Aquarium

What to Expect from the Sea Otter Encounter 

My teens, 13 and 17-years-old were a bit more reserved than me during our sea otter encounter, but the experience made it to my oldest’s Snapchat story, which is always a sure sign of a successful field trip with teens. Here’s what you can expect on your own encounter.

Meet the Otters. The Southern sea otters are endangered animals, and the Georgia Aquarium is committed to helping rescue and rehabilitate stranded sea otter pups like Cruz. The Georgia Aquarium has two more rescued pups Bixby and Brighton, who join Oz, one of the aquariums original sea otters.

Pre-Encounter Planning. To get the most from your encounter, it’s advisable to read up on the sea otters. Most of this information is covered again in the educational portion of the program, with the added bonus that you can ask the expert trainers at the aquarium questions.

Arrival. Groups assemble at the Animal Interactions desk located near the entrance to the Ocean Voyager gallery. Check in time is 15 minutes prior to your program. This gives everyone time to gather, plus sign waivers if you haven’t already.

When the time came, our trainer Melissa came down to the desk and escorted us behind the Cold Water Quest Gallery where the sea otters live.

Sea Otter Habitat. The sea otter habitat includes three interconnected spaces with three different pools. The main pool is the public habitat, but we were able to see two additional pools behind the scenes. The human space isn’t large, which is the reason there are only five spots for each sea otter encounter, making it a very intimate experience.

Educational Presentation. After a quick tour of the facility, Melissa gave us a 10-minute presentation on sea otters, their habitat, conservation efforts and care. She showed us a replica of a sea otter’s jaw and the teeth that allow them to crush crab shells. We were also able to pet a confiscated otter pelt. It was so incredibly soft and at one million hairs per square inch, super thick!

During the entire presentation, Cruz, one of the three orphaned sea otters at the Aquarium, was swimming in the tank behind us, chirping away as if to say, ‘hey, pay attention to me.’

It was hard not to watch Cruz as he cracked a shell on the side of the tank, illustrating almost on cue as Melissa told us how they open their food with a rock, and sometimes in the aquarium habitat, by banging it on the side of the tank.

Animal Training. Next we took a seat on stools while we watched Brighton, another sea otter, participate in a training session. The sessions prepare the otters for health screens, learning how to put out their paws for inspection and even getting drops in their eyes – just like Pop does every day.

The coolest thing was watching Brighton work a ball full of food, squeezing it to push out the juicy restaurant grade shellfish inside.

Otter Bombing. Not to be ignored, Cruz continued his requests for attention. We were only too happy to accommodate him. We were able to pet his nose, and feel his paws, including retractable claws, and shake hands.

I’m sure it was more about the shellfish treats, but I felt like Cruz was just as excited to play with us as we were to engage with him. He made quick work of the shrimp, shelling it in his paws and chopping its soft contents in a matter of minutes (otters we learned are one of a few sea mammals that chew their food).

After playtime, Cruz posed for photos with each one of our party. The photos are part of your experience and can be picked up afterwards at the Animal Interaction desk.

Fish Popsicles. Our encounter ended with frozen treats. Michelle brought out fish popsicles that we fed to Cruz through the acrylic. My youngest gave him two at a time, which he eagerly took, stuffing one in his pocket for later while he munched the first.

Sea Otter Stout. Afterwards we were going to head to Café Aquaria for a Sea Otter Stout, a special micro-brew from Red Brick Brewing Company and the Georgia Aquarium but it’s not available until Dec. 4. Like the sea otter encounter, proceeds from the sale of Sea Otter Stout support research and conservation efforts.

If you want to bring some Sea Otter Stout to your next holiday party, you can purchase it after Dec. 4 at Kroger, Whole Foods, Target, and Fresh Market to name a few. Wrap up a six-pack with a Georgia Aquarium membership for your next gift exchange and I guarantee everyone will be stealing it.

Georgia aquarium sea otter experience

Know Before You Go

If you are ready to make your own sea otter encounter reservations, there are a few things you should know first.

Reservations. There are only five spots for each sea otter encounter, so it’s best to make a reservation vs. expecting to book the encounter on the day of your visit.

Age Restrictions. You must be at least 7 year-old and guests 15 and under must be accompanied by a participating adult. Also, there is a maximum of three children per participating adult.

Sea Otter Encounter Tickets. The Sea Otter Encounter does not include tickets to the aquarium and those must be purchased in addition to the encounter tickets.

If you are bringing an older guest, keep in mind how much you think they can experience at one time. If I had to do it again, I might have my husband pick my dad up and take him home right after the encounter, allowing the rest of us time to explore the aquarium exhibits and shows.

Special Needs and Accommodations for Older Guests. The aquarium has complimentary wheelchairs available on a first-come, first-served basis, as well as handicapped parking. Parking staff also offers golf cart assistance to the wheelchair drop-off and pick-up areas, which is to the left of the ticketing windows.

If you are coming with older adults, build in a little time to take advantage of these benefits. As I mentioned, the experience itself was a lot for my 89-year-old dad. He declined the wheelchair, but golf-cart assistance is always welcome. He was super excited to participate, and these little touches made it easier for him to do so.

While in the sea otter encounter, they did have stools to sit on, but they are low. My dad is pretty ambulatory and was able to get up and down, but he chose to stand most of the 40 minutes, if you have someone that needs to sit, or has trouble getting up and down, maybe ask about other accommodations.

Sea Otter Encounter at the Georgia Aquarium The sea otter encounter is a great gift for grandparents, as well as kids (or adults, honestly, it’s that cool)

Five Memory Making Gifts at Georgia Aquarium for Children, Teens & Grandparents

Our sea otter encounter is a memory we will always treasure. We are very lucky that at 89-years-old, my dad was able to join us, and truly participate in the experience. It’s a memory my children will have for a long time.

In addition to the Sea Otter Encounter, the Georgia Aquarium has dolphin and penguin encounters. But those aren’t the only ways to have a special experience with your family. Here are four more ways to experience the Aquarium that make awesome gifts – for any age.

For the Grandparents Behind the Seas tour.  Get a look behind the glass including the topside decks of Ocean Voyager and Tropical Diver.

For Children Sleep Under the Sea. Lesli and her son checked this off their bucket list recently. Read here for what to expect. 

For TeensJourney with the Gentle Giants. Teens are notoriously hard to buy for, which makes this an even better idea. My middle son still thinks this is one of our best field trips. 

For the Whole FamilyAnnual Memberships are one of my favorite gifts to give and receive. The Georgia Aquarium has several different types, including a new family membership. If you can’t afford the entire membership fee, consider gifting tickets. The recipient can redeem them at the membership desk and put the ticket fee toward purchasing their own membership.

With a membership, families can enjoy the aquarium anytime, as a special date night with just mom and dad (members receive a significant discount on special programs like Sips Under the Sea) or  during the festive events over the holidays. Plus, a membership means lots of freebies too.

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Georgia Aquarium's Sea Otter Encounter - shake hands with an otter

Disclosure: 365 Atlanta Family is proudly an Ambassador for Georgia Aquarium…but it doesn’t influence what we share here. The sea otter experience was definitely something you should experience.

Sue Rodman | Managing Editor & Business Development

Sue Rodman is a mother of three boys, a PR professional, writer, and ice cream lover. For eight years, Sue published an award winning family travel blog called Field Trips with Sue, and produced a TV segment with the same name on CBS Better Mornings Atlanta. In Sept. 2016 Field Trips with Sue merged with 365 Atlanta Family. In addition to writing blog posts and managing the advertising and public relations for 365 Atlanta Family, Sue does freelance public relations and her writing has appeared online at TravelingMom, Trekaroo, Minitime Family and other family travel sites. She has contributed to print publications such as Family Fun, Simply Buckhead, BuckHaven and Publix Magazine. In addition, Sue has appeared on local and national news talking about family travel. Sue believes anytime is a good time for dessert and there are no bad field trips, just better stories.

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