Speed-date with the world's cutest critter

Craig Platt gets a fuzzy feeling from a furry sea creature.

I may be a six-foot tall, thirty-something, red-blooded Australian male, but I've just been reduced to behaviour more fitting for a giggling Japanese schoolgirl.

"So cute!" I find myself exclaiming.

The creature responsible for this is swimming in front me on its back, balancing a block of ice on its not-inconsiderable belly. It's a sea otter, and it's just about the cutest animal I've ever seen.

With one day left in Vancouver before heading for the Rocky Mountains, we'd decided to take a quick stroll down to the city's famed Stanley Park on the edge of downtown. The 400-hectare space is one of the largest urban park's in North America, almost entirely surrounded by water. While parts of the park are given over to gardens, bike paths, recreation areas and the like, its interior, with its enormous cedar trees, is more like a wilderness area than a city park.

Today, however, there's no time for dawdling on the walking trails as we're heading to the Vancouver Aquarium, which is also located in the park boundaries. Usually I'm not one for these purpose-built tourist attractions, but the aquarium comes with a strong reputation and a couple of major selling points - with a focus on the local sea life, the aquarium offers an opportunity to see animals not found in southern waters.

Sea otters are a rarity in the waters of Vancouver and its province British Columbia these days, having been hunted voraciously for their fur in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The population is recovering thanks to the importation of several groups of the animals from Alaska, where the aquarium's otters also come from.

The incredibly cute critters dart to and fro in their pens, ducking, diving and backstroking around their pools. Unusually for zoo animals, the sea otters are exceptionally active. This is because, unlike most marine mammals, the sea otters have no blubber and have to rely on their thick fur and constant activity to keep warm.

The keepers toss them prawns trapped in the chunks of ice, which they grip with their paws or balance on their bellies as they backstroke through the water, chewing their way through to the meat. If the ice chunk is too big, the otters will carry it to the edge of the enclosure and smash it against the wall with their paws to reduce it to a more manageable size.

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Along with the sea otters, the other major drawcard are the beautiful, if somewhat goofy looking, beluga whales.

The belugas look a little like giant dolphins, with a less aerodynamic head. Their most striking feature though is their colour. They are bone-white – so white in fact, that in the first few photos I take of them they seem to glow in the image.

Despite their exotic appearance, belugas are reportedly the most common whale in Canadian waters. Aquarium visitors can watch the graceful animals from both above and below – underwater glass allows for a close-up view.

The aquarium is home to five belugas and has had some success with its breeding program. Sadly though, one of the aquarium's two beluga calves died shortly after our visit due to a blockade caused by foreign bodies in her blowhole. The event reignited debate about the captivity of these animals.

The aquarium defended its breeding program on research grounds. "What we learn from the responsible breeding of animals can often help to further our understanding of wild populations," said the aquarium in a news release at the time.

It's true that several of the animals at the aquarium were taken from the wild in poor condition, including a porpoise and sea turtle, and have been nursed back to health.

Beyond the mammals, the aquarium is also home to an impressive array of other life forms – exotic fish, glowing jellies, crustaceans and frogs. More than 70,000 creatures in fact. There's plenty to keep the family occupied for an afternoon and the prices are reasonable too.

There's also a '4D' theatre – a 3D film (on our visit it's the Shallow Seas episode of the BBC documentary Planet Earth) with the added dimension of moving seats, water spray and bubbles. A sea snake scene has the audience shrieking in terror, then laughing uproariously at their own reactions, as their seats jerk when the snake strikes.

We finish off our visit with a stroll through the extensive frog display. After seeing one of the world's cutest creatures earlier, here we recognise one of nature's ugliest – it's a cane toad. I trust they are keeping the lid on its enclosure tightly closed.

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism Vancouver.

FAST FACTS
Getting there

V Australia flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Los Angeles, codesharing with Alaska Airlines for connections to Vancouver.

Vancouver Aquarium is located in Stanley Park on the north-west side of the downtown area and can be easily reached on foot. Vancouver two hop-on, hop-off city tour bus operators also stop in Stanley Park near the aquarium. See www.bigbus.ca and vancouvertrolley.com. Public bus No. 19 also runs from downtown to the park.

Staying there
The Coast Coal Harbour opened just before the Vancouver Winter Olympics and is a stylish hotel located close to Stanley Park. Rooms from $183 a night twin share.

See http://www.coasthotels.com

The Pan Pacific Vancouver is located on the harbour and features great views over the harbour and the city. It also has several excellent restaurants. Rooms from $329 a night twin share.

See http://www.panpacific.com/Vancouver

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