Surfers in Santa Cruz bothered and having boards stolen by mischievous otter

In California, a bold sea otter is causing trouble for locals by commandeering surfboards she snatches from unsuspecting surfers in the lineup.

Nestled amidst the rocky shores of Santa Cruz, the iconic Steamer Lane boasts a renowned point break that attracts seasoned surfers. However, it has also become the territory of a 5-year-old female sea otter who has gained notoriety for her persistent encounters with surfers and kayakers.

Social media is flooded with videos capturing the astonishing sight of an otter emerging from the ocean and boldly hopping onto surfboards, leaving surfers in a state of awe. In some instances, the otter has even taken to gnawing on the boards or pressuring surfers to relinquish their prized possessions.

As onlookers watch the videos, their laughter echoes through the air, amused by the misfortune of the surfers. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials express concerns over the otter’s behavior, considering it a potential threat to public safety.

Acknowledging that no injuries have been reported thus far, the USFWS released a statement advising caution. They urge kayakers, surfers, and other individuals engaged in recreational activities in the area to avoid approaching the otter or encouraging any form of interaction with it due to its highly unusual conduct.

Mark Woodward, a 60-year-old Santa Cruz local and photographer, who has spent years capturing images of otters, expressed his astonishment at the recent events. Despite having photographed hundreds of otters throughout his career, he admits that he has never encountered a situation quite like this. In a span of less than a week, he personally witnessed the otter harassing surfers on three separate occasions.

“I saw the first incident on June 18 and I didn’t know what was happening,” Woodward told NPR. “… It was quite astounding.”

The USFWS finds the otter’s behavior concerning and unusual. While the exact cause is unknown, officials suspect hormonal surges or human feeding as possible factors.

The USFWS has classified Southern sea otters as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. They are also protected by the Marine Mammal Act and California law. These protections have been instrumental in the population’s recovery after being hunted to near extinction in the 1700s and 1800s. Southern sea otters play a crucial role as predators in California’s coastal ecosystems.

To address the situation, a joint effort by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium is underway to locate and capture the otter for relocation. Unfortunately, once captured, the otter will not be able to be released back into the wild, as stated by Kevin Connor, spokesperson for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in an NPR interview.

According to Kevin Connor’s statement to NPR, the otter, officially named otter 841, was born in captivity due to her mother’s previous friendly interactions with humans. In June 2020, she was successfully released into the wild. However, it wasn’t until September 2022 that she began displaying her peculiar behavior at Steamer Lane.

During that period, the staff from CDFW and the aquarium employed a technique called hazing to drive the otter away from the area, with the hope of discouraging her from engaging with humans. However, her recent interactions indicate that she has become unafraid of human presence, as mentioned by Connor.

“Trying to recapture the otter is an effort to avoid anything more drastic. If the otter were to harm or bite a person, the USFW, which is responsible for managing the population of these animals, would have to begin discussions of euthanizing the animal,” Connor said. “That’s the reality, and nobody wants to see that.”

After capture, the otter will undergo an examination at the aquarium before being relocated to a designated location approved by the USFWS. Similar to her mother, otter 841 has been deemed unfit for release, according to Connor.

Southern sea otters were once thought to be extinct until a discovery of a family of 50 in Big Sur in 1938, as shared by Connor. Presently, their population stands at around 3,000, a mere 30% of the estimated original population size prior to their near-extinction event.

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