British Columbia

How Vancouver Aquarium otters took over a Twitch channel featuring video gamers live streaming from hot tubs

The live stream might not be what viewers are expecting when they head to the Pools, Hot Tubs and Beaches category on Twitch, but an otter trainer says it's helping build a whole new wave of sea otter enthusiasts.

The Vancouver Aquarium has waded into a gaming platform's controversial channel and found success

The otters at the Vancouver Aquarium have always been popular, but the success of these cute mammals has reached new heights on Twitch. (Vancouver Aquarium)

One of Twitch's newest and perhaps most controversial channels is dedicated to female video gamers live streaming their game play from hot tubs.

But sandwiched in between those videos, and as one of the most-viewed streams on that channel, is live footage of otters frolicking away in their own pool at the Vancouver Aquarium.

What is going on, you ask? Well, we wondered about that too. 

First of all — what is Twitch?

Twitch is an online platform that allows gamers to live stream their play, share tips and even host podcasts.

Though it may sound like an odd concept for those who are not involved in the world of gaming, it's hardly obscure. Last November, a Twitch live stream between federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and U.S. lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made headlines after it raised $200,000 US in donations for initiatives aimed at reducing food and housing insecurity.

The game between politicians proved that streams can be highly profitable, with some gamers scoring brand endorsements and sponsorships.

Why are people gaming from hot tubs?

A recent trend on Twitch has seen female gamers streaming while in a hot tub. In fact, there's an entire category dedicated to it called Pools, Hot Tubs and Beaches.

Some said they started participating in the trend for a number of reasons — to boost their viewers or simply for fun.

But the trend isn't without its critics.

Some Twitch users say it goes against the platform's community guidelines and is inappropriate for a platform popular with a younger audience.

The streamers, in turn, have said they've faced harassment on their channels and call criticism of the trend misogynistic.

Twitch addressed the issue in a blog, stating it "will not take enforcement action against women or anyone on our service for their perceived attractiveness."

Twitch's live chat feature, on the right of the screen, allows viewers to chat with otter trainers and ask questions in real time. (Twitch.Tv/marinemammalrescue)

What does all this have to do with otters?

If you head to the Twitch landing page for the Pools, Hot Tubs and Beaches category, you'll see — between videos of gamers in tubs — a live stream dedicated to the sea otters from the Vancouver Aquarium's Marine Mammal Rescue Centre.

The Marine Mammal Rescue channel is the second-most popular stream in the category at the time of publishing, with the live stream saying viewers can check out the "#1 cold tub" stream of otters with the "thiccest fur."

Rachel Nelson, a sea otter trainer at the Vancouver Aquarium, says the channel averages around 3,000 viewers at any given time who can watch the otters play, feed and even go through training 24/7.

"I think there's something very soothing about tuning in and seeing some fluffy, baby otters hanging out," she said.

How did this happen?

This isn't the Vancouver Aquarium's first foray into live streaming. The organization has previously run live streams of otters, penguins and jellyfish on its website and on YouTube.

Nelson said the otter live stream began to draw a dedicated fan base after a baby otter named Joey was rescued when he was just days old. Fans of Joey flocked to YouTube's comments section to ask trainers about his care and how he was doing. 

Nelson said volunteers with Marine Mammal Rescue thought to use Twitch because of its easy-to-use chat feature that allows watchers to submit questions that can be answered by trainers in real time.

She said Twitch's creation of the Pools, Hot Tubs and Beaches category only propelled the otters to more fame.

"They took advantage of the hot tub phenomenon. I think it's been a bit of a surprise for people going on that stream, but everyone seems to love otters," she said.

"People have been getting so excited. They've been getting to know all of our otters. Some of the people can actually tell them apart from their whiskers or the colour of their fur."

The stream garners, on average, around 3,000 viewers at any given moment. (Twitch.Tv/marinemammalrescue)

Does the aquarium profit from the stream?

The sea otters at the Vancouver Aquarium have all been deemed non-releasable by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Nelson says many were rescued as orphans within days of being born. They weren't able to learn basic survival skills from their mothers.

Nelson said that while the aquarium hopes the stream will inspire donations and boost trips to the facilities, it doesn't profit directly from the stream.

The pandemic has been tough on the Vancouver Aquarium, which had to shutter its doors to visitors and was eventually sold to a U.S. tourism company.

But Nelson said the stream has also broadened the aquarium's audience from those who visit the otter enclosure in Vancouver to anyone in the world with an internet connection.

"We still get to do all that enrichment. We still get to spread the word about these amazing animals."

With files from Joel Ballard and Michelle Ghoussoub