501 in fine form. Photo by Arlene Burns.
A young woman finds a stranded baby sea otter on a beach south of Big Sur after a storm. Peering down at the damp, shivering fur ball, she grabs her cell phone and makes a call, setting in motion a story about the otter's struggle for survival and humans’ efforts to protect an iconic species.
This is Otter 501, an unconventional hybrid of nature documentary and scripted feature film produced by Monterey's Sea Studios Foundation. Shot on location in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, the film stars an otter rescued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) program—one of 588 SORAC has rescued since 1984.
The eponymous otter’s story is told through the eyes of Katie (Katie Pofahl), a young woman who’s moved to Monterey in search of adventure. Her discovery of 501 leads her to become an Aquarium volunteer—and to share 501’s journey and her growing knowledge of otters’ tenuous existence via Facebook and a webcam diary.
Filmgoers get a rare glimpse into the real-life drama of otter rescue and rearing, in which select Aquarium female otters become surrogate mothers, teaching the pups to dive for food and develop essential survival skills.
A crew of nature-doc veterans, including executive producer Mark Shelley and director Bob Talbot, followed 501 from shortly after her June 2010 rescue through her rescue and rearing (she was raised by Toola, the world’s first surrogate otter mom, who passed away in March) and to her dramatic June 2011 release into the wild.
SORAC Program Manager Karl Mayer, reached by email while releasing another otter into Moss Landing’s Elkhorn Slough, reported spotting 501 on May 8, resting in the slough with a group of 18 otters.
501’s story ends well, but the film notes the recent decline of the southern sea otter population, and how humans must act to protect them.
“Their health reflects our actions,” Katie says in the film. “If they’re in trouble, what we’re doing needs to change.”
OTTER 501 opens Friday, May 18 at the Nickelodeon