Her name may be 501, but she’s more than just a number. The adorable sea otter is the star of Otter 501, a new feature film from Sea Studios Foundation. In theaters May 11, the movie combines documentary filmmaking and fictionalized drama to tell the true-life tale of 501’s rescue.
Otter 501 was just a few days old when she lost her mother back in June 2010. Washed ashore on a beach along California’s Big Sur coast, the orphaned pup could have died. Instead, she got a second chance at life after being taken to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s there that the little fluff ball—dubbed 501 by aquarium staff—learned from an adoptive otter mom how to, well, be an otter.
Moviegoers get to know 501 through the online video diaries of Katie Pofahl. In the film, it’s Katie who finds the stranded pup on the shore. Through the young volunteer’s eyes, we follow 501’s journey from the day of her rescue to her release into the wild in Elkhorn Slough. But while the furry star has a happy ending, the film reminds us of the threats that remain against California’s sea otters.
Mark Shelley is the executive director of Sea Studios and producer of Otter 501. He hopes the movie will encourage more young people to get involved in protecting the otter’s ocean habitat. TFK spoke with Shelley and with 501’s costar Katie Pofahl about sharing the cuddly otter’s tale.
With all of the otter pups that the aquarium cares for, how did 501 become the star?
That was a stroke of luck. The film crew was allowed to join the aquarium’s team on otter-rescue calls. As soon as our team had everything in place to work with the aquarium on the film, the first rescue call that came in was for 501. All of the otters that have the potential to go back into the wild are given numbers in the order in which they are brought in.
How much of the film is fact, and how much is fiction?
The story of 501 and the explanation of the natural history of the sea otter are fact. But I didn’t think making a film that was only about cute, cuddly sea otters would do them the service they deserved. We needed a good storyteller to tell the story. That’s where Katie’s character came in. Katie’s story in the film is partly fictionalized. She is a trained biologist from the Midwest who moved out here, like her character, so all that is true. She wasn’t really a volunteer at the aquarium, but she did go through the training for the film.
I was one of the last people to get involved on the project. Mark and Sea Studios put out a casting call for a marine biologist who could be enthusiastic about the ocean on camera. I responded with a little video, and the team liked it. So, I was brought on to help tell 501’s story. I’m now doing other things at Sea Studios—outreach and continuing my character’s story through social media.
What did you learn about otters during filming that you didn’t know before?
I’m a zoologist, and I love studying animals. I came onto this project thinking that I knew most everything there was to know about otters. But I learned some things. Otters keep busy because they live in such cold waters. Unlike other marine mammals, they don’t have blubber to keep warm. So, they are constantly moving and eating. And they are a keystone species, which means they help to structure the environment they live in. There are endless things to learn. That’s what I love about this job.
For me, the thing that was most surprising was just finding out how many people have a special connection to otters. There are so many people finding us online who tell us they love otters.
Where is 501 now?
She’s still in Elkhorn Slough. She’s been hanging out in the deeper parts, where there are a lot of mom and pup otters. She’s been there for almost a year now. The researchers say she’s doing well.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
We have an amazing opportunity to help people be aware of how they impact the world. People will go watch the movie to see this adorable otter, but it can also be an entry point into conservation. We want to show people that these animals are amazing and that they are at risk and that they are worth protecting. We also want to show people, and especially young women, that anyone can go into science. It’s been an amazing experience for me.
What kinds of things can we do in our everyday lives to protect otters?
Being conscious of everything you put into the water is critical, such as cleaning agents or fertilizers. All of those things end up getting flushed into our water system and then into the oceans.
In order to protect the otters, we have to protect the oceans.
To learn more about the movie and to view videos of 501, visit otter501.com.