Take one attractive, bubbly actress named Katie Pofahl. Cast her opposite one or more of the most endearingly charming animals on the planet and roll film. Sounds like a recipe ready made for the Disney Channel, but it’s actually the formula for “Otter 501,” a new film by Sea Studios Foundation of Monterey.
Through a clever mix of feature- and documentary-style filmmaking, “Otter 501” chronicles the rescue and rehabilitation of the 501st orphaned sea otter pup to enter the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s (MBAQ) Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program. Separated from her mother at the age of one week, 501 was rescued in June 2010, on the Big Sur coast and transferred to the Aquarium’s rooftop otter care facility.
There, staffers take great pains to ensure that their charges do not bond with humans—the animals live in a tank that has tall canvas walls so they can’t see people, and those who must interact with the otter pups wear elaborate costumes to hide their silhouettes. 501 was taught the ways of the world by Toola, the program’s pioneer surrogate mother. Herself an orphan taken in by the MBAQ program, she was the first to prove that a female otter would take on an abandoned pup and raise it as if it were her own. Sadly, Toola passed away on March 3, 2012. “Otter 501” is a fitting coda to her 11-year tenure at the Aquarium—during which she successfully raised 13 otter pups.
The genesis of the film can be traced to Clint Jones, a garrulous and genial MBAQ volunteer docent.
“On my first Aquarium visit, I spent 30 minutes at the otter exhibit,” the retired Louisiana dermatologist says. He was fascinated by these charismatic animals and the more he learned the more interested he became. “They have a hard time of it,” Jones muses, “But you never hear an otter complaining.”
Jones wanted to make more people aware of the otters’ plight—“expand the choir” as he puts it in his smooth drawl. His idea was to produce a film in the vein of “March of the Penguins” or “Winged Migration,” interesting movies that also told the compelling story of endangered species.
Knowing “less than nothing” about filmmaking, Jones was put in touch with Mark Shelley, executive producer with Sea Studios—whose offices are in a former cannery building literally next door to MBAQ.
“We had never produced a feature film,” Shelley says. But his team had plenty of experience with ocean filming. Founded in 1984 as a for-profit company, Sea Studios was hired to create the original exhibit videos for MBAQ and spent the next decade generating like films for zoos, aquariums and TV. Switching to nonprofit status in the mid-1990s, the studio produced the series “The Shape of Life” and “Strange Days on Planet Earth” with the National Geographic Society.
“Otters are small, shy and wary of people,” Shelley says. Given those challenges—plus the restrictions imposed on close contact with this fragile species—posed technical problems for filming otters in the wild. The team came up with solutions high- and low-tech, from a small high-definition camera mounted on a toy remote control boat to a sophisticated camera-and-boom device attached to a full-size boat.
“We followed Otter 501 for seven months in captivity at the otter rehabilitation facility,” Shelley recalls. The remainder of the film was shot over a two-year period—a luxury an out-of-town production company would not have been able to afford, due to the high costs involved in location shooting. “Because we live here,” Shelley says, “we could pick and choose our filming days.”
The results are stunning. Beautifully shot scenes of Monterey Bay area waters are contrasted with scenes of Katie (both the character’s and the actress’ name) as a young woman staying in Monterey for a few months. Katie discovers the orphaned Otter 501 while on a kayaking jaunt and, like Clint Jones, becomes intrigued enough with the critters to sign up as a volunteer at MBAQ. There she (and the audience) gains an awareness of how otters have evolved to survive in the chill waters off our coast. A clever storytelling device is Katie’s narration by the use of Facebook to tell her friends about all she’s learned.
By the time the film is over, the viewer is well versed in otter lore. It’s education disguised as fun. Another happy outcome is the tale of Otter 501 herself; as you read this, she is merrily lying on her back in a kelp bed somewhere near Moss Landing—and hopefully raising pups of her own.
Peninsula moviegoers will have the chance to see “Otter 501” when it premieres May 11 at the Osio Cinemas in Monterey. The film opens simultaneously in Berkeley and San Francisco and thereafter in selected markets nationwide. More information is available at, www.otter501.com