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Natural World: Sea Otters - A Million Dollar Baby (Review)

Natural World

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

I HAVE to admit I first fell in love with sea otters while scouting the Californian coastline off Monterey while on honeymoon almost five years ago.

Their inherent cuteness – courtesy of their cuddly fur, cute hands and feet in the air mode of floating and general playfulness – blew me away (along with my wife). Needless to say, there were endless “oohs” and “aahs” from the both of us whenever we caught one in our binocular sights, or got to see another up close at the aquarium.

It was with little hesitation, therefore, that we tuned in to BBC2’s Natural World special, Sea Otters – A Million Dollar Baby on Thursday (August 12, 2010) to see this fascinating one-hour special on a mother who had taken the remarkable decision to rear her cub in Monterey Harbour, surrounded by millionaire boats and their owners.

The BBC has long excelled at natural world documentaries and this programme was no exception, capturing the beauty and splendour of both the sea otter and her pup, as well as the surrounding Californian environment.

Early on, especially, hearts melted over footage of the mum playing with her pup (using rope as a substitute for kelp forest sea-weed), or carrying her from dock to dock and then ‘planting’ her out of harm’s way while she foraged for food.

There was laughter, too, as she taught her baby how to use the hulls of boats to break open shellfish… especially as the pup’s early endeavours to emulate her parent often went comically awry (by way of using rubber tyres or wood as metal substitutes!).

Interspersed with these tender moments, meanwhile, were breathtaking shots of the Monterey harbour and coastline bathed in various weather conditions – whether it was the sight of waves crashing over rocks, fog creating moody backdrops against harbour masts, or sunsets and sunrises breaking over the horizon.

Among these, too, were comparison shots of other sea otters in their more usual environment among the kelp forests, where one brave mum was seen to master the art of surfing a wave to reach the rocks and a bounty of mussels for herself and her waiting child.

As with every nature documentary, however, there was a perilous side that made certain scenes hard to watch. Yet ironically, the peril came from one of the sea otter’s own… a brutish male harbour bully, named ‘Pink Blue’, who posed a threat to both the pup (at four months) and her mother (for sexual purposes).

Watching ‘Pink Blue’ use the pup as bait to lure its mum was bad enough, but scenes involving the aftermath of one of Pink Blue’s attacks on the sea otter mum were harrowing, especially as the incident marked the last time mother and baby were ever seen together. The ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ quickly turned to gasps of horror.

There was, however, a hard-earned happy ending. Mum was rescued and nursed back to health, finding love in the fur of a more gentle male suitor who had managed to sneak into the harbour past ‘Pink Blue’, while the four-month-old pup (two months away from really being able to fend for herself), put her lessons into play to survive the winter months and fend for herself in the safety of the harbour.

And yes, the ‘ooh/aah’ factor returned as the show closed with loving shots of the respective mum and pup basking in the harbour water (though not together).

As for the name of the show itself, it was revealed that each sea otter (of which there are still only just over 2,000) can be worth half a million dollars to the Monterey economy over the course of its lifetime, given their popularity with visiting tourists.

Yet, crucially, their numbers aren’t rising, possibly as a result of past environmental disasters (such as over fishing or pollutants drifting into the sea from rivers)… meaning that the onus remains very much on us humans to nurture and protect their environment for future generations to continue enjoying.

After spending an hour in the sea otters’ company, you’ll very much hope that a solution can be found to ensure that these adorable creatures can once again thrive.

Natural World is on BBC2 on Thursday nights, from 8pm.