By Maggie Fazeli Fard
The Washington Post
For California's sea otters, survival is a long shot. It's not uncommon to see an otter pup — orphaned, lost, hungry and injured — wash up on the beach around Monterey Bay.
"Saving Otter 501," a "Nature" documentary premiering on PBS on Oct. 16, tracks the life of one such pup, dubbed Otter 501 by her handlers because she is their 501st attempt to save a stranded orphan otter.
The show follows Otter 501 from her discovery as a newborn crying on the beach to her rehabilitation in the hands of a team of marine biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Guided by the scientists and a surrogate otter mother, she struggles to learn how to dive, hunt and eat in an artificial environment, all with the hope that she will be able to fend for herself in the wild someday.
Through 501's story, the program examines the role of humans in otters' plight, whether we have a responsibility to try to save them, and why otter populations continue to suffer despite conservation efforts.
According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, California's otters were driven to near extinction by hunters in the early 20th century, and their numbers never rebounded. Once estimated at 16,000 to 20,000, they are now thought to number fewer than 3,000. While pathogens and parasites, coastal pollution, shark attacks and oil spills are major threats, these factors do not fully explain their ongoing struggle to survive.