The film Otter 501 transcends your standard issue nature porn documentary, and offers a compelling look at how the Monterrey Bay Aquarium takes stranded and abandoned otter pups and trains them to be more or less self sufficient back in their natural environment — in other words, Born Free for otters.
But rather than wrap their tale in standard documentary narrative, the film makers masked their work as a semi-fictionalized account of a young woman with a keen interest in marine biology who lands, by dint of family connection, in Monterey with six months to kill. Almost immediately upon arriving, she happens upon a young otter pup — named 501 because it was the 501th such critter to participate in the aquarium’s rehab program — on the beach. Much of the story unfolds as the young biologist recounts — via computer web cam — her evolving encounter with 501 to the folks back home in Wisconsin.
It seems a little gimmicky at first, but it’s also ingenious, and effectively propels the storyline along. It also allows the filmmakers to drop a massive brain dump about the history, sociology, and ecology of otters, easily one of the cutest creatures to inhabit Planet Earth, without resorting to the “Now class” pedanticism that afflicts many nature flicks. We learn, for example, that otters have the densest fur of any living being because, lacking in the protective blubber of most marine mammals, they would die otherwise from hypothermia. Likewise, we learn how the fur that’s kept them alive nearly got them killed off entirely, as Russian fur traders plying the coastal waters managed to destroy all but 50.
Today, those 50 — discovered in a cove just outside Monterey in 1938 — have grown to 2,700, but for reasons not entirely clear, those numbers have not continued to rise in recent years. Maybe it’s a function of hungry sharks; maybe it’s the storm run-off of biologically destructive chemicals associated with industrial agriculture; no one knows for sure. What the aquarium did learn for certain, however, is ensure that stranded pups have a much better chance of succeeding in the wild when reared by a surrogate otter mom than by well-meaning humans intoxicated by irresistible charms of these voracious sea weasels. Like all great discoveries, this one was both accidental and — in hindsight — obvious.
In Otter 501, we get to meet the surrogate mom, who lost her own pup just as Monterey biologists found a stranded baby in dire need of mothering. The cinematography is ridiculously beautiful, and anyone who thinks they already know how stunning the Monterey Coast is will be forced to re-calibrate their amps to 11. And, of course, there are the otters themselves, absolute show stealers in any setting.
Otter 501 screens on Thursday, February 2, 4 p.m., Saturday, February 4, 8 a.m., and Sunday, February 2, 2 p.m., all at the Metro 4.