‘Nature’ reveals secrets in ‘Charlie and the Curious Otters’

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Wildlife filmmaker presents first-person account

In February, a film crew spent a week foraging for footage of otters along the Rainbow River as part of a documentary about the mammals; and for the trio filming for the project, the experience was more than they expected.

Now, that documentary, “Charlie and the Curious Otters,” will premiere nationwide at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25, on PBS (check local listings). The film will be available to stream the following day for four weeks via pbs.org/nature and PBS OTT apps.

How otters are able to operate so successfully on both land and in water has fascinated wildlife filmmaker Charlie Hamilton James for years, so he decided to see what he could learn from studying several species around the world to discover their survival secrets.

“Charlie and the Curious Otters” focuses on efforts to rehabilitate three orphaned river otters in Wisconsin, shows some ground breaking experiments using cool cameras and anatomical CGI, and captures other wild encounters.

The elusive, playful, and adaptable otter has the distinction of having mastered both the aquatic and terrestrial worlds. They are equally adept at hunting underwater as they are foraging and chasing prey in a forest. But they are not easy to spot, despite the fact there are 13 different species on earth. Although they’ve been hunted for sport and fur and their numbers are down, not one species has become extinct.

At the Wild Instincts Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Rhinelander, Wis., Charlie is introduced to three orphan river otter pups and films their progress and training: from needing around the clock care and feeding, to being taught the crucial skills they will need in order to return to the wild. Despite the fact otters can swim nearly a quarter-mile without coming up for air, baby otters do not start out as natural swimmers and they don’t really like water. So the center’s manager Mark Naniot assumes the roles of surrogate mother and teacher. Charlie films him coaxing the pups into a small pool for swimming lessons and later adding minnows which the orphans instinctively chase and catch.

The filmmakers also paid a visit to Dunnellon in February, where the clear spring-fed river provided Charlie with great conditions to capture rare shots of otters hunting underwater.

“I’m stoked, I’m really stoked,” said Mark Wheeler, the director and chief videographer for the one-hour documentary, which is part of BBC’s long-running series, “Natural World.” “When you sit down to write the script, you come up with some really amazing ideas. Some of them work out, others don’t, of course. But for this, since being here in Dunnellon, some of those really crazy ideas have come together. It’s just been amazing.”

In addition, the crew shot footage at the Oakland Zoo, where Charlie filmed otters hunting fish in slow motion to determine how they detect and capture their prey so quickly. He also visits the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s head vet Dr. Mike Murray who explains that sea otters have the densest fur in the animal kingdom which is a key survival asset both on land and in the water.

In a film studio, high-speed, thermal and other cameras are on hand to shed light on some of the otter’s survival secrets by examining its physiology and anatomy. A thermal camera shows which parts of a sea otter retain heat and which give off heat. Its thick fur is so good at insulating itself that the camera shows little heat escaping. In another experiment, Charlie puts his theory to the test as to whether otters blow bubbles onto an item, like fish, and re-inhale it to determine if it is food or something else.

No matter which species they belong to, these inquisitive and intelligent animals all have long, highly flexible bodies, a powerful tail, and webbed feet which allow otters to live a successful semi-aquatic life.

Nature is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET and PBS. For Nature, Fred Kaufman is executive producer. “Charlie and the Curious Otters” is a co- production of THIRTEEN Productions LLC and BBC Studios in association with WNET.