Otter 841 has attacked surfers, stolen their boards, and ridden the waves — unusual otter behavior that has baffled experts.
Surfers along the California coast know to keep an eye out for sharks. But lately, they’ve been warned to avoid a different animal: a five-year-old sea otter who has been attacking surfers and stealing their boards.
“Aggressive Sea Otter In This Area,” signs posted along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warn. “Enter The Water At Your Own Risk. Keep Away From Marine Wildlife.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, a few reports about the aggressive sea otter appeared last year. But the attacks have recently escalated. The five-year-old female sea otter, named Otter 841, has been hostile toward surfers. She forces them off their boards, which she steals, rides for a bit, and often damages with her powerful jaws.
“I was scared,” said Joon Lee, a beginner surfer attacked by Otter 841 last Sunday. “I was trying to swim away, but before I was able to get far, it bit my leash [a tether attaching a surfer to their board]. So I panicked.”
Lee managed to escape, but not before Otter 841 lunged at him and damaged his surfboard. (He told the Los Angeles Times that he doesn’t plan on surfing ever again.) But marine animal experts stress that most otters do not display this level of aggression toward humans.
“I would start just by saying that this is very unusual and rare,” Jessica Fujii, the scientific and operational leader of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program, explained to the Los Angeles Times. “I would not characterize this as a common behavior for sea otters. We have seen similar instances, you know, over the last several decades … but the persistence and pattern of this particular otter is fairly unique.”
Otter 841 is well-known to local otter experts. The New York Times reports that her mother was raised in captivity, released, then recaptured when she started climbing onto kayaks in search of food. During this second bout in captivity, she gave birth to Otter 841, who was raised by humans at the Monterey Bay Aquarium after she’d been weaned.
Hoping to release Otter 841 into the wild, her human handlers tried to prevent her from forming strong bonds with them. When they interacted with her, they wore masks and ponchos. Despite this, she seemed to quickly lose her fear of humans in the wild.
“After one year of being in the wild without issue, we started receiving reports of her interactions with surfers, kayakers, and paddle boarders,” Fujii explained to The New York Times. “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.”
Because of this, wildlife officials have decided to recapture Otter 841.
“Due to the increasing public safety risk, a team from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Monterey Bay Aquarium trained in the capture and handling of sea otters has been deployed to attempt to capture and rehome her,” a spokesperson for the CDFW said in a statement.
The decision has been made for both the safety of surfers and Otter 841 herself. California sea otters, also called southern sea otters, once thronged in the waters along the California coast. Aggressive fur hunting in the 19th century made them an endangered species, however, and just 3,000 such otters exist today. Yet if Otter 841 were to bite a human, officials would be forced to euthanize her despite her species’ status.
But Otter 841 has managed to avoid capture so far.
“She’s been quite talented at evading us,” Fujii told The New York Times.
For now, California surfers should be on the lookout for more than just a shark’s fin. Among the waves, they should also keep an eye out for the beady brown eyes of Otter 841.
After reading about the California sea otter who has been stealing surfers’ surfboards, see how researchers in Ethiopia discovered a giant prehistoric sea otter the size of a modern-day lion. Or, read about the Florida otter who terrorized local residents to such an extent that it was shot by the police.