TAMPA — Gracie neared the water's edge with small, delicate steps.
The 7-month-old dipped her head briefly in the Florida Aquarium pool and then pulled back.
Not quite ready yet.
So the 8-pound river otter scampered back to the safety of a nearby cave Thursday morning.
The first splash in the deep end can be frightening when mom is not around to help.
A little smelt and some human encouragement would have to do.
"They're scared to death," explained Susan Gerros, a Florida Aquarium biologist.
Katie Jeffrey tossed a fish in the pool close to the edge. "Gracie," the biologist called out.
After several stops and starts, Gracie was ready. Found abandoned in Brandon when she was about 2 months old, she wanted that shimmering silver smelt.
She flopped in, grabbed the fish and quickly jumped out of the water.
"It's like trying to get my 4-year-old in the pool," said Tom Wagner, the aquarium's public relations manager.
Getting her to this point took three months of work. Gracie, a streamlined 2-footer, went in and out of the water like this several times, gobbling up the smelt, bones and all. Each time, she was a little more graceful, a little less hesitant, and a little more full.
"She eats like a crazy otter," said Gerros laughing. Behind the glass aquarium wall, trainers and aquarium staffers giggled and eagerly followed the furry mammal's every move.
River otters are cute. River otter pups learning to swim for the first time: really cute.
Within about 10 minutes she was journeying beyond the edge of the pool. Soon, she was diving to the bottom, clawing her way up embankments and exploring the water.
Otter swimming lessons are typically left to the mother. When pups first enter the water, they don't even know they can't breathe.
"Most of the time, it's water up the nose first," Gerros said. "They don't realize that everything has to be closed."
Gracie is one of about 30 otters, mostly abandoned, the aquarium has taught how to swim.
"She did really well," Gerros said. "We definitely know she loves water."
Gracie has one aquatic feat to master before she can go on exhibit: swim through the dark tunnel that connects the holding pens and the display. Give her a week. She'll be ready.