A Surfboard-Snatching Sea Otter Is Vexing Wildlife Officials in California

While the animal’s antics may look cute, the dangerous behavior could bring harm to humans or force authorities to euthanize the endangered mammal

sea otter on surfboard
Experts aren't sure why the otter is approaching surfers, as sea otters have a natural fear of humans. Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz

Meet 841, a sea otter with an affinity for surfboards. Over the past few years, photos and videos of the 5-year-old female have made the rounds on the internet, showing the creature fearlessly approaching surfers in the waters off Santa Cruz, California. But lately, it seems the otter’s antics have escalated. In some instances, the marine mammal has been spotted biting and stealing surfboards—and even climbing atop them.

And while some beach-goers and internet onlookers may find the encounters cute or endearing, wildlife officials say the situation is getting out of hand and could quickly turn dangerous—for both swimmers and the otter herself.

On Monday, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Monterey Bay Aquarium announced that their wildlife experts would attempt to capture and rehome otter 841 “due to the increasing public safety risk,” they said in a statement to media.

They also urged locals and visitors to stop glorifying the behavior on social media, where it can be misconstrued as fun and positive, says Jessica Fujii, sea otter program manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to the New York Times’ Annie Roth.

“I know that’s hard to do,” she tells the publication. “It gets lots of likes and attention, but in the long run, it can be detrimental to the animal.”

For example: If 841 (or any other sea otter) bites a human, California wildlife officials will have to euthanize the animal, writes the Times. And southern sea otters, also known as California sea otters, are still rebounding after being hunted nearly to extinction during the fur trade in the 1700s and 1800s. Now, an estimated 3,000 of the endangered animals live in the Pacific waters off the Golden State.

Sea otter climbing onto surfboard with a person holding the board's other end
Otter 841 was born in captivity and later released into the wild. Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz

Wild sea otters are usually scared of humans and try to steer clear of people. But every so often, they have been known to approach swimmers, kayakers and beach-goers. This sometimes occurs because of hormonal changes females experience while pregnant, or because they’ve become desensitized due to people trying to feed or get close to them.

But 841’s story is a little different—and a bit confusing to wildlife experts. The otter was born in captivity at Santa Cruz’s Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center, then later transferred to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There, aquarists went to great lengths to ensure she did not become accustomed to humans or begin to associate them with positive feelings. They hid behind ponchos and masks whenever they were near 841.

And, for a while, they thought they’d succeeded. After releasing 841 back into the wild, they assumed she was adapting just fine—until about a year later, when they began to hear reports of a sea otter approaching humans in the water.

Sign on a post next to beachfront
California wildlife officials are now trying to capture and rehome 841. Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz

Wildlife officials have no explanation for 841’s behavior, because as far as they know, beach-goers and swimmers have not been feeding her. Still, they are becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of a more serious run-in between the animal and humans. Sea otters have powerful jaws and sharp teeth—both of which help them crack into clams, crabs, urchins, mussels and other invertebrates.

“It’s a little scary,” says Mark Woodward, a photographer who posts on social media as “Native Santa Cruz” and has been documenting 841’s interactions with surfers in recent weeks, to the Los Angeles Times’ Susanne Rust. “They seem so cute and docile, but these animals are predators.”

Sea otter approaching surfer in the water
If a sea otter approaches, surfers and swimmers should give the animal space, wildlife experts say. Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz

So far, 841 has eluded attempts at capture. Until wildlife experts can safely rehome the animal—first at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, then in another facility—they are urging Santa Cruz recreators to stay alert and give the otter space.

“Just move away from it,” says David Ebert, an ichthyologist at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, to KION’s Sharon Song. “Definitely don’t try to engage it.”

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