Thursday, September 9, 2010
Baby 501 will never see the grizzle-chinned, baseball-capped men who have been chronicling her shy encounters with her surrogate mom – or, for that matter, the Monterey Bay Aquarium workers who take care of her. But soon, a Sea Studios feature documentary will beam her real-life story to the world.
The otter pup was found stranded on a beach near Morro Bay when she was barely a week old. Experts with the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation program deemed her healthy enough to return to the wild – if she can learn survival skills like grooming and foraging without becoming habituated to humans.
So in early August, SORAC staff introduced 501 to her mustelid foster mom, Toola. And Sea Studios Foundation, the Aquarium’s nonprofit neighbor on Cannery Row, was there to film it.
“It was a first-high-school-date kind of thing,” says Sea Studios Executive Producer Mark Shelley. “They sort of ignored each other: 501 buried her head in the water and tried to look like a rock. Toola wasn’t so sure she wanted to take this thing on; it’s a lot of work. So now it’s kind of a standoff.”
In order to maintain 501’s healthy suspicion of humans, SORAC staff and volunteers wear Darth Vader-like helmets and capes in her presence. When 501 joins Toola in an 18-foot-diameter tank on the Aquarium’s roof, Shelley maneuvers a high-def Panasonic VariCam at one end of a 20-foot weighted jib, and watches the otters interact through a monitor at the other.
But even if people keep their distance, orphaned pups need some mentoring – and that’s where the surrogates come in. In early August, 14 otters occupied six of SORAC’s tanks, with several of the juveniles scheduled for re-release after their four foster moms rear them.
Toola, a sleek brown female with a white face, joined the Aquarium in 2001, when staff found her suffering from seizures – a symptom of toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection. The seizures are controlled by medication, which renders her unreleasable. But she’s been an invaluable foster mom, rearing 12 pups for SORAC to date.
Her maternal bond, however, isn’t always immediate. On their second meeting, Toola circles the tank while 501 darts between the haulout and the kelp. SORAC Animal Care Coordinator Karl Mayer watches the pair interact on a monitor in the control room, while Sea Studios Associate Producer Hannah Smith Walker films his observations.
Mayer is waiting for Toola to signal she’s ready to take on the pup by grabbing 501, plopping her on her chest, sniffing and biting her. “She’s certainly aware of the pup’s presence and doesn’t seem interested,” he says. “Toola has taken every pup we’ve given her – eventually.”
So ultimately, the odds of 501’s successful schooling are pretty good. SORAC researchers implant transmitters and tag the pups’ flippers before re-releasing them at about 7 months old. Pups that don’t forage well or swim too far out to sea – about 60 percent – are re-captured, trained more and given another shot. Among those who succeed in the wild for two weeks, about 85 percent make it for a year, Mayer says. Over the long term, their survival rates are about the same as those of wild otters.
A few days after their second meeting, Toola started feeling more maternal toward 501. Soon she was sharing prey with the pup, and 501 even learned to open clams and mussels on her own.
Today, 13-week-old 501 is on target in her development: hanging out with juveniles her own age and on track for re-release this winter.
“The mother-pup bond,” Mayer says, “is solid.”