The Way Back

Stuck in an archival deep freeze, a 45-year-old short film surfaces—a cross-border project to reintroduce sea otters to British Columbia.

Published June 12, 2015

In this column we republish—or in this case, re-release—work that helped us look at the world in a new way, or work that offers a glimpse into a forgotten seminal event in coastal history. The video has not been altered from its original form.

Tubby bodies, mild faces, drooping mustaches, playful. Funny, fat, and friendly. All words we used to describe sea otters in the 1970s. Today, we talk about them as keystone species, ecosystem engineers, and voracious in appetite (for food and sex).

Hunters, hungry for the riches brought by luxurious sea otter pelts, hounded the animals to the edge of extinction over a century ago. This short 1970 film The Way Back, produced for the British Columbia Department of Recreation and Conservation, documents the translocation of sea otters from Alaska to British Columbia waters, a move scientists hoped would boost the marine mammal’s numbers.

The film’s introduction is long, the music hokey (although just listen to those real instruments), and it takes 20 minutes to get to the central conflict, but this half hour film offers a panoramic view of the past, following the journey of “man and mammal,” from the Aleutian Islands to Vancouver Island’s west coast. There is no star of the film, aside maybe from Old Jake the “sturdy old devil” that had to be separated from the sea otter “ladies.” The only place to step through this time portal is Hakai Magazine. We liberated the film from the British Columbia archives because we wanted to see it. And now we’re sharing it.

At the film’s end, the narrator wonders if these sea otters will establish a breeding colony. “Men,” he says, “could only bring them this far.” It was far enough. The translocation was the springboard the sea mammal needed.

In British Columbia, the 89 sea otters reintroduced at Checleset Bay are likely the ancestors of some 5,000 animals now reshaping the coastal ecosystem, transforming the seabed from sea urchin barrens to kelp forests—a vibrant habitat for many species, including fish; a natural breakwater that protects the coastline from erosion; and a bit of a climate change buster since, like other photosynthetic organisms, kelp absorbs and stores carbon dioxide, of which we currently have an excess.

The Way Back brings full circle the story of how one species, the sea otter, can shape the natural and cultural history of a region. All this, and they’re charming, too.