Over the past few summers, many surfers in Santa Cruz, California, have been victims of a crime at sea: bodyboarding. The culprit is a female sea otter who approaches the wave riders, grabbing and even damaging their surfboards in the process.
After a weekend in which the otter’s behavior appeared to be more aggressive, wildlife officials in the area said Monday that they have decided to stop these acts of otter poaching.
“Due to the increasing risk to public safety, a team from CDFW and the Monterey Bay Aquarium trained in the capture and handling of sea otters was deployed to attempt to capture and rehome her,” said a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. in a statement.
Local officials call the animal Otter 841. The 5-year-old female is known, both for her bold behavior and her ability to hang 10. And she has a tragic backstory, with officials now forced to take steps that illustrate the ways. human desire to get close to wild animals can cost the animals their freedom, or worse, their lives.
California sea otters, also known as southern sea otters, are an endangered species found only along the central coast of California. Hundreds of thousands of these otters once roamed the state’s coastal waters, helping to keep the kelp forests healthy as they consumed sea urchins. But when colonists moved into the West Coast, the species was hunted to near extinction until a ban was instituted in 1911.
Today, about 3,000 remain, many in areas frequented by kayakers, surfers and paddle boarders.
Despite these close quarters, interactions between sea otters and humans remain rare. The animals have an innate fear of humans and usually go to great lengths to avoid us, said Tim Tinker, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has spent decades studying the marine mammals. A sea otter approaching a human “is not normal,” he said, adding “but just because it’s not normal doesn’t mean it never happens.”
Otters have been known to approach humans during hormonal surges that coincide with pregnancy, or as a result of feeding or repeated human contact. This probably happened with the mother otter 841.
She was orphaned and raised in captivity. But after she was released into the wild, people started offering her squid and she quickly got used to it. She was removed again when she began climbing onto kayaks in search of handouts, ending up at the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz, where researchers quickly realized she was pregnant. It was while back in captivity that she gave birth to 841.
The pup was raised by her mother until she was weaned, then moved to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. To enhance her chances for success upon release, 841’s caretakers took measures to prevent the otter from forming positive associations with humans, including wearing masks and ponchos that obscured her appearance when they were around her.
However, 841 quickly lost its fear of humans, although local experts cannot explain exactly why.
“After a year of being in the wild without a problem, we started getting reports of her interactions with surfers, kayakers and paddle boarders,” said Jessica Fujii, sea otter manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “We don’t know why this started. We have no evidence that she was fed. But it has been going on in the summers for the last two years.”
Otter 841 was first observed climbing on water vessels in Santa Cruz in 2021. At first, the behavior was a rarity, but over time the otter grew bolder. This past weekend, the otter was observed stealing surfboards on three separate occasions.
On Monday, Joon Lee, 40, a software engineer, was surfing at Steamer Lane, a popular surfing spot in Santa Cruz, when 841 approached his board.
“I tried to paddle away but I couldn’t get far before it bit my rope,” he said.
Mr. Lee left his board and watched in horror as the otter climbed onto it and proceeded to rip pieces out of it with his powerful jaws.
“I tried to get it off by flipping the board over and pushing it away, but it was so stuck on my surfboard for whatever reason, it just kept attacking,” he said.
While Mr. Lee immediately recognized the danger he was in, not everyone in the water is so aware. Last month, Noah Wormhoudt, 16, was catching some waves with a friend from Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz when 841 swam up.
“I started paddling away trying to avoid it, but it kept getting closer and closer. I jumped off my board and then it jumped on my board,” he recalled. “It seemed friendly, so we got comfortable with it. It was a pretty cool experience.”
Caught up in the excitement of the moment, Mr. Wormhoudt said he “didn’t really like to think about how it might bite my finger off.”
The young surfer watched from the water as the otter stayed on his board as the swell rolled. “The otter broke apart, caught some nice waves,” Mr. Wormhoudt said.
Such situations are extremely dangerous, said Gena Bentall, director and senior scientist of Sea Otter Savvy, an organization that works to reduce human-caused disturbances to sea otters and promote responsible wildlife viewing. “Otters have sharp teeth and jaws strong enough to crush shells,” she said.
Contact with humans is also dangerous for the otters. If a human should be bitten, the state has no choice but to euthanize the otter. And with so few sea otters left, the loss of even one individual is an obstacle to the recovery of the species.
If the authorities succeed in capturing 841, she will return to the Monterey Bay Aquarium before being transferred to a different one, where she will live out her days. Her captors have their work cut out for them. Multiple attempts to capture her were made, none successful.
“She’s very good at avoiding us,” Ms. Fujii said.
Until the otter can be caught, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is asking surfers to avoid her at all costs.
Experts also had a message for people who share their close encounters with sea otters on social media.
“Reporting these interactions to the appropriate staff, and not sharing them on social media – where it can be misinterpreted as a fun, positive interaction where that might not be the case – is really important,” Ms Fujii said. “I know that’s hard to do. It gets a lot of likes and attention, but in the long run it can harm the animal.”