Stranded by a storm on a California beach, the 3-day-old star of “Otter 501” wouldn’t have stood a chance had she not been rescued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
When the call came in about the orphaned otter, the aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) program responded immediately, and Mark Shelley, award-winning filmmaker and executive director of the Sea Studios Foundation, was there to film the arrival of SORAC’s 501st otter.
The studio planned to make a movie about sea otters and ocean conservation, but rather than telling 501’s story through a traditional nature documentary, the filmmakers decided to weave the otter’s narrative in with that of another character.
“I’ve been making these films for a lot of years and I’ve observed that the audience is aging. I don’t see younger audiences finding and engaging in films about nature, and this is at a time when there needs to be even more interest in what these films have to say,” Shelley says. “I felt that the traditional, dispassionate narrator might be one reason why we aren’t seeing younger audiences. I knew that this film — and the story that sea otters have to tell — would be best served by introducing a new kind of storyteller and a new kind of framing device.”
Filmmakers decided that the movie’s main “character” would be a young person who could tell 501’s story via social media. Eventually, the studio found Katie Pofahl, a freshwater biologist from Wisconsin, and she — along with fuzzy and adorable 501 — became the face of the film.
Pofahl plays a semi-fictionalized version of herself, a young biologist from the Midwest who stumbles upon 501 on the beach and volunteers for the aquarium’s otter program. Through her eyes, we see the otter pup get a second chance at life as SORAC introduces her to Toola, a female otter and surrogate mom who embraces 501 and teaches her survival skills.
Structured as a series of Facebook posts, 501's story unfolds as Pofahl recounts her experiences to friends and family via webcam. But “Otter 501” isn’t just a heartwarming story of survival — Pofahl’s narration also provides an education on sea otters and the numerous threats the species faces.
“The idea was to take a pure natural history film and wrap it in a storytelling device that helps people get the science and the nature side of it,” Shelley says.
In “Otter 501,” we learn that otters have the densest fur of any animal, and how their coveted pelts nearly led to their extinction as fur traders killed all but 50 of them. Today, that small population, which was discovered in a cove outside of Monterey in 1938, has grown to 2,700. However, their numbers have remained stagnant, which is why otter research and rescue has become such a central part of the aquarium’s conservation program.
Although SORAC has successfully reintroduced many otters to the wild, the film outlines the dangers — pollution, habitat loss and predators — that 501 will face, and we see firsthand that not all otter rescues have happy endings.
Luckily though, 501’s story does end well. After six months of rehabilitation and survival education from Toola, the pup is released into the wild, and today the furry movie star is living in Elkhorn Slough, where she’s been for over a year now. As for Pofahl, she, too, has a happy ending. In the film, her “character” makes a commitment to stay and work on conservation issues in Monterey, and today Pofahl works full-time for Sea Studios.