Monterey Bay, critters, shine in savvy, engaging ‘Otter 501’
Who doesn’t love sea otters? These playful, fuzzy-headed little guys cracking open shellfish on their bellies, or industriously cleaning their faces, are a fixture right out in our own yacht harbor, and entire rafts of them float just offshore at Moss Landing and Monterey. Otters are so plentiful around here, most of us don’t realize how precarious their living situation still is.
When a group of concerned Central Coast researchers and marine specialists decided to dramatize the plight of the otters, they took an innovative approach. The engaging result, Otter 501, is neither a traditional documentary, nor a kiddie film about how cute and cuddly otters are. Instead, the filmmakers get the word out the modern way, via social media. To tell the animals’ story, they invent a parallel story about a college coed on holiday from the Midwest discovering the Monterey Bay for the first time; what she learns about otter culture, their history and habits, and the movement to protect them, is presented as a series of informative, yet easily digestible webcam posts on her Facebook page.
It seems a little corny at first, with newcomer Katie (the personable Katie Pofahl) breathlessly telling the folks back in Wisconsin how “amazing” and “awesome” the Monterey Bay is (and sounding much more like a California girl than a native Cheesehead). But the device turns out to be a savvy decision on the part of veteran underwater doc director Bob Talbot and longtime nature/science scriptwriter Josh Rosen to plop the viewer into the action and keep things moving as Katie eagerly posts her findings.
An aspiring freshwater biologist who’s never paid much attention to ocean life, Katie nevertheless dives into coastal water sports, eager to find out “what happens when you throw yourself off the edge of a continent.” On an early kayaking excursion, she discovers a motherless otter pup stranded in a kelp bed. Whipping out her iPhone to consult Google, she reads about the Monterey Bay Aquarium and calls an otter rescue team. Sadly, she learns that orphaned otter pups are not uncommon in these waters; the baby female Katie soon considers “her” pup is number 501.
Volunteering at the aquarium, Katie is disappointed to learn that otter handlers are required to wear “Darth Vader suits” with visors to prevent pups becoming too attached and dependant on their human companions. (Amusing footage from the heyday of human-otter bonding shows a handler in flippers and goggles lolling out in the water showing a pup how to crack open shells on his stomach.) Since 2000, the aquarium has pioneered an innovative program to pair up orphan pups with adult females already living at the otter center to show them the ropes so the youngsters can be returned to the wild. (Elkhorn Slough, it turns out, is the preferred point of relocation.)
Otter 501 is introduced to veteran surrogate otter mom, Toola, for rehab, and Katie joins a research team collecting data on the local otter population. Along the way, we learn that otters stay warm in the ocean due to insulating air pockets trapped beneath their dense fur, but the warmth of their fur caused the otter population to be hunted almost to extinction by the end of the 19th century. Miraculously, a community of some 50 survivors was discovered off Big Sur in the 1930s, from which the current population is descended.
Numbers are up to around 2,700, but researchers are concerned that otters are not expanding their territory as far as they would like. Predators like Great White Sharks, drawn to the ever-burgeoning seal and sea lion populations are part of the problem, but so is man-made pollution that fouls their habitat, and too many thoughtless boaters and curious kayakers encroaching on their wild spaces. We also learn of the otter’s crucial place in the food chain, preserving life-giving kelp forests by feeding on sea urchins that eat kelp.
The film is gorgeous to watch, and the undersea footage really is amazing (especially time-lapse starfish, called sea stars, moving like The Blob to engulf and consume their prey). Otter 501 scores as both a heartfelt plea for sane ocean management and a character study of one of nature’s most beguiling creatures.
★★★ (out of four)
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With Katie Pofahl. Written by Josh Rosen. Directed by Bob Talbot. A Paladin release. Rated G. 85 minutes.