Otters have got to be one of the cutest, most adorable animals in the world. They are also one of the most helpless animals when they are newborn. When a baby otter in distress is found near Monterey Bay, California, marine biologist Karl Mayer begins the long and difficult process of rehabilitating and educating this otter so that he can eventually be reintroduced back into the wild. This documentary is the story of this otter, nicknamed Otter 501 because he is the 501st otter to be rehabilitated by Mayer and other biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Fortunately for Otter 501, much has been learned about what works and what does not work in this type of rehab since the first otter was helped many years ago. Otters who enter the program are assigned a number rather than a name, and staff wear special suits with large welding helmets that prevent the otters from recognizing them. The star of the program is Toola, a female otter who gave birth to a stillborn pup when she was in rehab herself, and now is used as a surrogate mother to pups like Otter 501. It is quite moving to see some of the key moments in the relationship that develops between Toolah and Otter 501, which include the moment she first gains his confidence and when she shows him how to dive underwater in one of the main tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Prospects for Otter 501 to survive in the wild are not great, but Toola gives him a fighting chance. I won’t give away the ending, but it is a bittersweet one — be sure to have the tissues nearby!
There is a wealth of information about otters presented here, much of it new to me. Some of it is quite sobering. One of the most depressing facts is that this animal, once prevalent from Northern Russia into Alaska and all the way down the Pacific coast of the United States, was hunted to near extinction in the late 19th century. The 2000 or so that are left (up from 50 at first count) are carefully monitored by marine biologists. The many fascinating behaviors of these endangered animals are sure to mesmerize you. My favorite one was watching them crack open clam shells with a stone on their tummies while they float on their backs in the water.
There is a lot to like about this documentary. The cinematography is excellent: the views of Monterey Bay were gorgeous and the many close-ups of otters were exceptional. I plan on watching other fine programs in the Nature Series put out by PBS; WRL has over 30 of these programs.
There is nothing like seeing these creatures live and up close. The Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach, VA has an otter exhibit that I enjoyed seeing a few years ago. A little further away in Atlanta is the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium and one of my favorite places I have visited. It has several exhibits that feature otters, it has a special Sea Otter Encounter Program, and it is actively involved with otter rehabilitation like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
This is a great documentary, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in animals and animal rescue operations. To further entice you to see this, you can see a short video clip and nine incredibly cute pictures of Otter 501 here.
Check the WRL catalog for Saving Otter 501