SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (AP) — A sea otter was catapulted into the national spotlight after photos of her surfboards posing with surfers off the coast of Santa Cruz, Calif. circulated on social media, and she is building a fan club as she continues to elude capture.
A team of wildlife experts with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium has been trying to capture the 5-year-old animal known as Otter 841 since last week because they say she poses a public safety risk.
They say they want to examine it and take it to a zoo or aquarium – so far without success.
She now has a growing fan club, with people popping up every day to get a glimpse of her spending her time sunbathing on the rocky beach, diving into the water and nibbling on crabs.
Jessica Foggy, Sea Otter Program Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said the team faced some challenges in their pursuit, including bad weather.
“The main issue is more than just her ability to wriggle. Because this has been an ongoing effort, she is wary of those curling nets,” said Fuji.
Federal and state wildlife officials did not respond to messages from The Associated Press seeking comment Thursday about their efforts to capture the 841 otters.
These mischievous mammals were made famous by a professional photographer who posted photos and videos on social media showing them aggressively approaching surfers and riding on surfboards – on at least one occasion biting and tearing off the board.
“They can’t throw a net over her in the water. They can’t calm her down because of the fear she’ll drown. So they really need to get her,” said Santa Cruz photographer Mark Woodward.
The team trying to capture her used a baited skateboard. I’ve had it a few times in the past few days, according to Woodward. But, he said, as soon as a wildlife official towing the surfboard carrying her approaches the team boat, she sinks.
Federal wildlife officials said the otters’ aggressive behavior is highly unusual, and the cause is unknown.
“Aggressive behavior in female southern sea otters may be related to hormonal elevations or due to their feeding by humans,” the US Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement last week.
Otter 841 was born in captivity and released into the wild in June 2020. She was marked by her number and had a radio transmitter that officials had been monitoring to keep tabs on her.
They said it wasn’t the first time the otter had been aggressive towards humans. She was observed approaching people in late 2021. In May 2022, she was seen with a puppy in the Santa Cruz area, and four months later she showed similar aggressive behavior.
Meanwhile, her fans want her to be left alone.
“Just leave them alone. Just let them have fun. He didn’t bite anyone. He splits the board. It’s like a dog chews, you know?” said Jackie Rondell, a Santa Cruz resident who visited the bay on Wednesday.
Southern sea otters, whose population dwindled to about 50 in 1938, are managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. They are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and are protected under the Marine Mammal Act and California law.
Now with a population of around 3,000, sea otters play an essential role in maintaining healthy coastal ecosystems by preying on sea urchins that can breed and gnaw their way through the kelp forests shared by both marine creatures.