During the last few summers, numerous surfers in Santa Cruz, California, have been victims of a crime at sea: board theft. The culprit is a female sea otter, who tackles the surfers, grabbing and even damaging their surfboards in the process.
After a weekend in which the otter’s behavior appeared to become more aggressive, wildlife officials in the area said Monday they have decided to put an end to these acts of otter pilfering.
“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 has been deployed to attempt to capture and relocate them,” a Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesperson said. California Wild. in a sentence.
Local officials name the animal Otter 841. The 5-year-old female is well known, both for her bold behavior and her ability to hang 10. And she has a tragic backstory, and officials are now being forced to take action that illustrate the shapes. the 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 California coast. Hundreds of thousands of these otters once roamed the state’s coastal waters, helping to keep kelp forests healthy while consuming sea urchins. But when settlers moved to the West Coast, the species was hunted to near extinction until it was outlawed in 1911.
Today around 3,000 remain, many in areas frequented by kayakers, surfers and paddle boarders.
Despite these confined spaces, interactions between sea otters and humans remain rare. Animals have an innate fear of humans and often go out of their way to avoid us, said Tim Tinker, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has spent decades studying marine mammals. A sea otter approaching a human “isn’t 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 spikes that coincide with a pregnancy, or as a result of being repeatedly fed or approached by people. That is probably what happened with the mother of otter 841.
She was orphaned and raised in captivity. But after she was released into the wild, humans began offering her squid and she quickly became habituated to it. She was taken out again when she began boarding kayaks in search of handouts, and she ended up at the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz, where researchers quickly realized she was pregnant. It was while she was in captivity that she gave birth to her 841.
The calf was raised by its mother until weaned, and then transferred to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. To increase its chances of success upon release, 841’s keepers took steps to prevent the otter from forming positive associations with humans, including wearing masks and ponchos that obscured its appearance when around it.
However, 841 quickly lost his fear of humans, although local experts cannot precisely explain why.
“After a year of being out in the wild with no issues, we started getting reports of his interactions with surfers, kayakers and paddleboarders,” said Jessica Fujii, sea otter program manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “We don’t know why this started. We have no evidence that she was fed. But it has persisted in the summers for the last two years.”
Otter 841 was first observed boarding a vessel in Santa Cruz in 2021. At first the behavior was odd, but over time the otter became bolder. Last weekend, the otter was observed stealing surfboards on three separate occasions.
On Monday, Joon Lee, 40, a software engineer, was surfing Steamer Lane, a popular surf spot in Santa Cruz, when 841 approached his board.
“I tried to paddle away, but I couldn’t get very far before it bit my leash,” he said.
Mr. Lee left his board and watched in horror as the otter climbed onto it and proceeded to rip chunks out of it with its powerful jaws.
“I tried to get him out by flipping the board over and pushing it off, but he was so fixated on my surfboard for some reason, he kept attacking,” he said.
While Mr. Lee immediately recognized the danger he was in, not everyone on the water is so aware. Last month, 16-year-old Noah Wormhoudt was catching some waves with a friend at Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz when he 841 swam.
“I started paddling trying to avoid it, but it was getting closer and closer. I jumped off my board and then he jumped onto my board,” she recalled. “He seemed friendly, so we were comfortable with that. It was a pretty cool experience.”
Caught up in the emotion of the moment, Mr Wormhoudt said he “wasn’t really thinking about how I could bite my finger.”
The young surfer watched from the water as the otter remained on top of his board as the swell rolled in. “Otter was breaking down, caught a couple of good waves,” Wormhoudt said.
Such situations are extremely dangerous, said Gena Bentall, director and senior scientist at 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 clams,” she said.
Contact with humans is also dangerous for otters. If a human is 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 authorities manage to capture 841, it will return to the Monterey Bay Aquarium before being transferred to a different one, where it will live out the rest of its days. Her captors have a lot of work ahead of her. Multiple attempts to capture her have been made, none successful.
“She has been quite talented at evading us,” Ms. Fujii said.
Until the otter can be caught, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife urges surfers to avoid it at all costs.
The experts also had a message for people who share their close encounters with a sea otter on social media.
“Reporting these interactions to the appropriate staff and not sharing them on social media, where it can be misconstrued as a fun and positive interaction where that may not be the case, is really important,” Ms. Fujii said. “I know it’s hard to do. It gets a lot of likes and attention, but in the long run, it can be detrimental to the animal.”