Quick Take:

Once U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel confirmed that Santa Cruz’s famous marine mammal, Otter 841, recently gave birth to a pup, the agency halted capture efforts for the time being. Mark Woodward, the photographer who has spent months documenting the feisty otter, said seeing 841 and her pup was “almost an emotional moment.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it is pausing efforts to capture Otter 841 after confirming that Santa Cruz’s famous surfboard-biting mammal had given birth to a pup. Fish and Wildlife Ventura field supervisor Steve Henry told Lookout that crews will continue to monitor Otter 841’s behavior, but currently have no plans to capture her.

Wildlife biologists had suspected that Otter 841 was pregnant earlier in the year, as hormonal surges related to pregnancy have been observed to cause aggressive behavior in female southern sea otters. Mark Woodward, the local photographer who was one of the first to capture the otter’s antics, said he was wondering the same thing just before he first spotted the pup.

“A couple of weeks ago I noticed she was getting awfully big,” said Woodward, who goes by Native Santa Cruz on social media. “Later on I saw an otter pretty far off shore with what looked like a little pup; when she moved in closer I was able to get an ID by seeing the tag on her.”

The surfboard-stealing otter known as Otter 841, seen in July. Credit: Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz

Sea otter pups actually cannot swim upon birth, but they can float. Woodward recalls seeing 841 and her pup navigate that stage of life in adorable fashion. Though the pup does not have an official moniker yet, Woodward has begun referring to the pair as “841 + 1.”

“841 would leave the pup floating on the surface and dive under to look for food, and the baby would be alone on top of the water for about a minute,” he said. “As soon as 841 would come back up, she’d immediately swim over and put the pup back onto her stomach.”

Now that the pup is confirmed to be Otter 841’s baby, Henry said that it’s even more vital for members of the public to give her adequate space and to not disturb her while she is floating above water.

“The average adult sea otter has to actively forage and eat 20% to 30% of its body mass in food each day just to meet its energy requirements,” he said, adding that an otter floating on top of the water indicates it is resting to conserve energy. “Their survival, and the survival of their pups, depends on it.”

Fish and wildlife officials attempt to catch the surfboard-stealing otter known as Otter 841. Credit: Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz

Fish and Wildlife asks that anyone in the water stay at least 60 feet from any animals, never feed sea otters and maintain a safe distance from any wildlife. If a sea otter notices you, it’s likely because you are too close.

According to the agency, approaching a sea otter closely enough so that it changes its behavior can result in penalties, including fines of up to $100,000 and up to a year of jail time.

Woodward said that, thankfully, while he has seen some people traversing West Cliff Drive to try to get a glimpse of the baby otter, people in the water have kept their distance.

“I’ve seen no one get close to her in the water — this is nothing like what was going on in the middle of the summer,” he said.

And for Woodward, seeing 841 patrol the waters with her newborn pup is a wonderful sight.

“In my lifetime of taking photos of wild animals throughout the county, 841 is the only one that I always know is the same animal,” he said. “I’ve felt really connected to her, and seeing the pup was almost an emotional moment.”

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Max Chun is the general-assignment correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Max’s position has pulled him in many different directions, seeing him cover development, COVID, the opioid crisis, labor, courts...