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Must the Cute Little Sea Otter Die? No!: TV Review

'Saving Otter 501'
Otter 501, right, and her surrogate mom, Toola, in the tank that 501 was raised in. The Nature program, "Saving Otter 501," follows Karl Mayer and his team of marine biologists as they rescue the 501st otter washed up on the shore since their program began. Source: Sea Studios Foundation/Thirteen via Bloomberg

Say good luck to 501 and goodbye to Toola.

The sea otters are the stars of tonight’s marvelous “Nature” program on PBS, “Saving Otter 501,” which airs at 8 p.m. (check local listings).

Who hasn’t admired the nifty way they crack open abalones while floating on their backs? I wish I could eat oysters that way.

But how do they learn all the skills a successful sea otter must acquire to survive in California’s Monterey Bay, where most live?

“Nature” follows Karl Mayer and his team of marine biologists as they rescue a poor pup washed up on the shore.

Mayer is the Animal Care Coordinator of the Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program (Sorac), which is based in the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Packed into a dog carrier, the critter is transported to the aquarium where she eventually encounters a famous otter, Toola, who will be her surrogate mom.

Once the research center gave adorable names to the creatures it rehabilitated, only to realize that the human-animal bond became too strong on both sides.

Mommy, Mommy

The sea otters cried when their handlers took a bathroom break. And when they didn’t make it in the wild, their caregivers were traumatized.

Now the biologists wear welding helmets that hide their faces, and they identify their charges with numbers. Toola’s new pup is called 501, because 500 other otters have preceded her to the center since the program started.

For nearly a week, the two otters ignore each other paddling around their little pool at the aquarium, clucked over by anxious humans in Darth Vader outfits. Great drama. Finally! Success! 501 starts floating sweetly on Toola’s welcoming tummy.

Over the next three months, Toola, whose white face exudes charm, beauty and wisdom, teaches the auburn dummy everything she needs to know. For instance, the elaborate grooming rituals that will keep her warm and buoyant since sea otters have no helpful blubber.

In between, we see rescues and deaths. Sharks appear responsible for a sudden increase in otter mortality.

Parasitic infections are another killer. Rather surprisingly, the waters of Monterey Bay are incredibly polluted. The sea otters eat filter feeders who’ve absorbed the toxins into their tissue.

Endangered List

Another otter dies of hunger as she keeps feeding her baby. An adult mother needs to eat hundreds of clams a day. The mothering that goes on throughout the program is quite touching.

Their strangely imaginative resourcefulness delights. One sea otter drops her pup on the bottom step of an anchored boat so she can go hunt; others wrap their progeny in sea kelp so they don’t float out to sea.

Any disappearance is deeply felt. All sea otters come from a pod of 50 survivors discovered here after the great butcheries of the 19th century.

Today, there are some 2,800 sea otters, not a whole lot. They’re on the Endangered List as a “keystone population” because they eat sea urchins, who would otherwise destroy the kelp forests that are essential to healthy marine life.

Finally, 501 is equipped with a radio transmitter in a riveting operation. Her first release goes badly -- she fails to find enough food and is only saved by the devoted support staff, who fatten her up for her next attempt.

As “Saving Otter 501” ends, Toola has swum over the rainbow bridge. But her supreme skills live on: Not only has 501 survived, she’s given birth to a little pup.

“Saving Otter 501” is also available streaming at

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own.)

Muse highlights include Jorg von Uthmann on Paris culture, Farah Nayeri on film, Hephzibah Anderson on books and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.

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