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Otter 501: Can Nature Repair Herself?

Posted On June 12, 2012 by

Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

I came to the central coast of California for the oceans. As a native New Englander, I moved here in the early 1990’s to study kelp forests, the undersea equivalent of tropical rainforests, and the amazing diversity of marine life that thrives within and above them. After two decades here, I’ve grown accustomed to the incredible views of nature I see every day; I can forget what it was like to experience them for the first time. This is what drew me to Otter 501, a new film narrated by Katie Pofahl – the way it captures the wonder of the California coast I first experienced almost twenty years ago.

This new film from Sea Studios is more than an introduction to the central coast; it highlights the critical role that sea otters play in California’s oceans and the universal lesson that, if properly protected, nature has a remarkable ability to repair herself. By the early 1900’s, sea otters had been hunted to near extinction for their soft pelts. But miraculously, a small population of 50 sea otters survived, hidden on the Big Sur Coast.  When discovered in 1938 and later brought under protection by federal and state law, sea otters staged a recovery, and along with them, the kelp forests themselves.  It turns out that sea otters are what scientists call “keystone species”.  They eat sea urchins, which in turn eat kelp.  So when the otter population sprung back, their prey declined, and the kelp flourished.  This inherent resilience of nature is now at the heart of an international movement to establish marine protected areas across the world’s oceans, including here in California.

In addition to highlighting the power of protection to ocean health, the film provides a new take on presenting the natural history of endangered wildlife.  Director Bob Talbot (the acclaimed wildlife photographer) interweaves the dual stories of Katie’s journey of self discovery with the rehabilitation of an abandoned baby southern sea otter that she finds on a windswept Monterey beach.  The baby otter is brought under the care of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where Katie becomes a volunteer, and helps nurse the otter back to health. In a nod to the younger generation, Katie narrates her true story through a series of Facebook posts to friends and family.

While the film has a happy ending, sea otters aren’t out of woods yet.  Their recovery has recently stalled. With hunting eliminated, scientists believe this is due to a range of other new threats, including pollution and disease—which are more difficult to control.  Katie’s journey solidified her commitment to protect Otter 501 and the other sea otters that frequent Monterey Bay. You too can feel the allure of the California coast and learn more about the sea otters that call it home this summer at a theatre near you.