Forget sharks. Surfers on the Central California coast are dealing with a different kind of marine menace this summer: an oddly aggressive sea otter. The otter has been accosting surfers near Santa Cruz, hijacking their boards, and even riding in the occasional wave—leading wildlife officials to try and capture the animal. One of these close encounters was captured on video and shared to Instagram on July 11:
At the beginning of the video, the surfer is already in the water while the sea otter climbs onto his board and starts gnawing on it. The surfer tries rocking the longboard from side to side and flipping it upside down, but the otter is unshakable. It keeps biting chunks out of the surfboard and briefly charges the man when he gets too close. The exasperated surfer eventually gives up, swimming beside his commandeered board while the otter stays put.
“This was a very aggressive encounter and scary to watch,” reads the caption. “Please consider this video as a warning to how strong and forceful this animal is and [it] should be avoided if at all possible!”
This wasn’t a one-off occurrence, either. Several surfers and sea kayakers have dealt with the hard-charging otter in recent weeks, with three incidents taking place just last weekend, according to the New York Times. The otter’s behavior has gotten so out of hand that it is now considered a public safety risk, and local wildlife officials started trying to capture it on Thursday. Working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, a team of trained specialists with the Monterey Bay Aquarium has so far been unsuccessful in its attempts.
“She’s been quite talented at evading us,” Monterey Bay Aquarium spokesperson Jessica Fujii told the Times earlier this week. She also explained that the otter has a history with the aquarium, which helps account for its unusually bold behavior.
Known by officials as Otter 841, the five-year-old female was born in captivity. Her mother had become habituated to humans feeding it, and after boarding multiple kayaks in search of handouts, she was captured in 2018 and taken to the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz, where researchers quickly learned the otter was pregnant. Her sole offspring, Otter 841, was brought to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to be rehabilitated before being released into the Pacific.
“After one year of being in the wild without issue, we started receiving reports of her interactions with surfers, kayakers, and paddle boarders,” Fujii said. “We do not know why this started. We have no evidence that she was fed. But it has persisted in the summers for the last couple of years.”
While 841’s behavior was definitely out of the ordinary—most sea otters are terrified of people—locals found it cute at first. Over time, however, the animal grew bolder. And since Southern sea otters are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, there wasn’t much that surfers, kayakers, and other oceangoers could do to fend it off.
“I tried to paddle away but I wasn’t able to get far before it bit off my leash,” recalled one surfer who was forced to abandon his board in the surf last weekend. (Judging from his description, this was likely the same surfer who was filmed in the above video.) “I tried to get it off by flipping the board over and pushing it away, but it was so fixated on my surfboard for whatever reason, it just kept attacking.”
Another surfer, 16-year-old Noah Wormhoudt, described his run-in with 841 differently. He said that getting his board hijacked by the sea otter was actually a “pretty cool experience.”
“The otter was shredding,” Wormhoudt said. “Caught a couple of nice waves.”
With 841 still on the loose in the California surf, officials are reminding everyone to give the otter space for both the animal’s benefit and theirs.
“Otters have sharp teeth and jaws strong enough to crush clams,” one official said, noting that if the sea otter bites a human, the state will have no choice but to euthanize it.