Grandfather Mountain's otter habitat closed temporarily this week for renovations — and an important acclimation process for the Mountain's newest otter.
Work on the habitat is expected to begin in mid- to late March and should take only three to four weeks if weather conditions allow.
The renovations will not affect visitor access to the bear, deer, cougar and eagle habitats.
During initial construction of the otter habitat in 1996, a water-resistant membrane was punctured, allowing rain to seep through the upper portion toward the underwater viewing area structure.
Over the last 18 years, the water has gradually eroded the cement and mortar of the building, causing cracks and crumbling. While the foundation is secure and the building remains safe for visitors, the appearance has deteriorated.
"It just doesn't look like our other facilities, so it needs to be brought back up to our appearance standards," said Harris Prevost, vice president of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. "We hope to make it look better than it ever has before."
The entrance walls to the underwater viewing area will be replaced, along with the membrane, followed by the landscaping at the top of the habitat. After renovations are complete, the underwater viewing area will be repainted and remodeled to include otter photos and informational boards, Prevost said.
The work will be performed by Alex Johnson Construction Company in Newland, which has completed several other projects on Grandfather Mountain.
While the habitat is repaired and enhanced, another exciting transition for the otters themselves will occur behind the scenes.
During the next couple of months, adult otters Luna and Nottaway will be introduced to the younger Nova, who came to Grandfather Mountain in September 2013 from a wildlife rehabilitator after being orphaned at a young age.
Nova has lived in a private, off-display quarters called The Plaza since her arrival to allow the pup to grow and develop outside the presence of the more aggressive adult otters.
Under the watchful eye of the Habitat staff, Nova, Luna and Nottaway were introduced Tuesday afternoon in The Plaza with a fence separating the adults from the youngster.
During the initial meeting, Nova was curious but shy, clinging to the Habitat staff.
Feisty Luna was excited and animated to greet the pup through the fence, while laid-back Nottaway was more interested in playing in the snow.
Habitats Curator Christie Tipton said the otters will remain in this setup for approximately three weeks while they get used to one another's presence. Nova and Nottaway will then meet in a single enclosure for about two weeks before Nova and Luna meet in a single pen, with hopes of eventually combining all three.
Whether Nova can remain permanently with the other two otters will depend on their level of acceptance of the smaller, younger mammal.
"We've been eagerly anticipating this day since Nova arrived, but we're cautious to warn that if the introduction isn't smooth, the otters will remain separated," Tipton said. "In other wildlife parks, we're told it's unusual to see multiple females cohabitating."
Visitors to Grandfather Mountain in late spring can expect to see the otters back on display and enjoying the revamped habitat.
The Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation established to preserve Grandfather Mountain, operate the nature park in the public interest and participate in educational research activities. For more information, call 800-468-7325 or plan a trip at www.grandfather.com.