New York without the Statue of Liberty. San Francisco Bay without the Golden Gate Bridge. Monterey Bay Aquarium without sea otters.
For more than six months now, the star attractions of one of America's most celebrated aquariums have been AWOL. But on Saturday, the ridiculously adorable mascots of California's Central Coast will be back on exhibit. And all will be right with the world.
The sea otters who have delighted millions of visitors since the aquarium opened in 1984 were taken off display Sept. 4 so the aquarium could complete a $3 million renovation of their tank.
The two-story, 55,000-gallon tank, a landmark feature of the aquarium, was getting old and badly needed repairs.
"It's like remodeling your kitchen," said aquarium spokeswoman Karen Jeffries. "We've got new equipment, more storage, easier access and more room."
The concrete walls in the famous tank, sculpted like underwater rocks, were chipping and corroding in the saltwater -- and from the occasional clawing of otter paws. The aging pipes needed replacing. The plexiglass windows, where countless families and school groups have pressed noses and cameras while otters frolicked, needed buffing. High-tech new exhibits to help identify each otter and learn about their habits have been installed.
The service areas behind and above the tank, where food is prepared and hoses are stored, were revamped.
Throughout the project, large wooden construction barriers blocked off the tank. The aquarium, which received 1.9 million visitors last year, did its best to satisfy visitors who were longing for otter face-time. It set up an "otter spotter" station on the deck outside, with telescopes and other equipment where biologists would help tourists find otters swimming in the kelp beds off Monterey's Cannery Row shoreline.
But that wasn't quite the same.
"Bummed sea otter exhibit was closed," wrote one New York visitor on Tripadvisor.com, a tourism website. "But plenty else to see."
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the nation's leading aquarium for rescuing, raising and rehabilitating sea otters. Since it opened, the aquarium has taken in 625. Some have been pups stranded on the beaches of Monterey Bay, lost from their mothers in storms. Others have been badly injured from shark bites or other causes. And others have been sick and in need of life-saving medicine.
About 34 percent have been treated and released back to the wild, 8 percent put on exhibit at the aquarium or sent to other facilities around the nation, and the remaining 58 percent died from injury or disease.
Starting Saturday, five otters -- Kit, Ivy, Abby, Rosa and Gidget -- will be in the public tank, snacking on squid, clams, shrimp and other morsels and delighting the paying crowds.
"People love them," Jeffries said. "They are fuzzy, they are cute, they do endearing things like rubbing their flippers together. And they all have personalities."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulrogerssjmn