A U.S. Fish and Wildlife official attempts to catch a surfboard-stealing otter known as Otter 841.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

Santa Cruz’s surfboard-stealing sea otter is still at large

The 5-year-old female southern sea otter has been exhibiting unusual aggressive behavior toward surfers over the past month around Santa Cruz’s renowned Steamer Lane surf break. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is searching for the animal to bring it into captivity, but as of Wednesday evening, agents had not yet secured the otter.

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Deanna Hohn thought she was heading out to Steamer Lane for an ordinary surf session last Thursday. But upon entering the water via the stairs beside the famous surfer statue on Santa Cruz’s West Cliff Drive, she soon realized the situation was anything but typical.

“I was off my board wrapping up my leash, and this otter just got on top of it,” she said. “I knew I had to get that board back in short order or it would be destroyed.”

A battle of the board quickly ensued, with Hohn wiggling it until the otter jumped off. That was only a temporary solution, though, as the furry ocean mammal came charging back twice more after Hohn managed to fend it off. She resorted to splashing, yelling and making herself as big as possible, as one would when face-to-face with a mountain lion. Thankfully, that did the trick.

Hohn’s experience isn’t the first time that this particular otter has made itself known to local surfers.

“She’s been out there for quite some time, and there have been issues with that particular otter,” said Hohn. “And no, it’s not normal at all. It’s usually so peaceful out there between otters and humans.”

Surfer Deanna Hohn attempts to fend off an aggressive, surfboard-stealing otter at Steamer Lane on July 6.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

There have been four reported instances of the otter spooking surfers by biting and climbing onto their boards over the past month, with three of those happening in the past two weeks. This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service posted official warning signs along West Cliff Drive informing swimmers and surfers of the potential threat. The same otter is believed to have shown similar behavior last September.

The animal is a 5-year-old female southern sea otter “exhibiting concerning and unusual behaviors, including repeatedly approaching surfers and kayakers recreating in the area,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a statement. CDFW and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are collaborating to capture and rehome the otter. The otter was born in captivity, and she can be identified by a tag on her left flipper and via an internal tracker.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife attempt to lure the otter towards their boat on Wednesday, July 13, 2023.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents attempt to lure the otter toward their boat.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

On Wednesday, a small boat manned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel floated about 300 feet offshore in the Steamer Lane area. They attempted to bait the otter with a surfboard, fittingly, with the hope that she would climb aboard and allow them to pull her into the boat, but to no avail. As of Wednesday evening, the search was still on.

Mark Woodward, a local photographer who posts on social media under the name “Native Santa Cruz,” has traversed the Steamer Lane and Cowell Beach area regularly for the better part of the past month, snapping pictures and taking videos whenever the hairy culprit reared her head. Although he’s lived in Santa Cruz his whole life, this is new even for him.

“I’ve taken hundreds of otter photographs and June 18 was the first time I’ve seen one even close to a surfboard, let alone get on it,” he said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have been attempting to catch Santa Cruz’s surfboard-stealing otter.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

Otters’ often-adorable appearance might convince you that they’re nothing more than living, breathing, swimming stuffed animals, but don’t be fooled, says Woodward.

“The experts I’ve talked to compare them to wolverines. They can be vicious and their jaws are extremely powerful,” he said. “I started putting out the message that this is a dangerous animal.”

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“I know that there’s the potential of a pretty dang nasty bite, and they are fast,” said Hohn, adding that while she was intimidated, she did not feel as if the otter was trying to attack her personally. “It seemed to just want my board, and then we had a difference of opinion because I didn’t want to give up my board.”

However, Hohn admitted that fighting back like she did might not be the best approach.

“Your safest bet is just to abandon ship, I suppose,” she said. “It’s better to let the board go than get bitten.”

Gena Bentall, the director and senior scientist of Sea Otter Savvy — a Watsonville-based nonprofit research organization focused on sea otter stewardship — said at this point, it’s best to stay out of the water altogether until the otter is captured. However, if you do take your chances, Hohn’s approach is probably the way to go.

“Splashing and banging on the board, making yourself big and scary makes the whole experience unpleasant for the otter,” she said, adding a disclaimer that she’s seen some surfers try this with this otter unsuccessfully. “If you have a paddle or something like that, bang it against the water and 9.99 times out of 10 those measures will work.”

So why is this particular otter so especially feisty? Without empirical testing, it’s hard to say for sure, Bentall said, but both hormones and human behavior could have something to do with it. Bentall explained that hormonal surges have been observed in a number of other female otters that have displayed aggressive behavior.

As for human behavior, Bentall said that repeated instances of people engaging in activities like hand-feeding and closely documenting otters from a kayak or a similar vessel can lead to the otter interacting with humans more frequently.

“If you encourage these bold interactions because you want to get a great video on social media and get millions of likes, you’re potentially creating a situation like the one that’s happening now, where this animal is going to be removed from the wild population,” she said.

Although surfers won’t be out on the water with phones in hand looking for their chance at a viral otter video, the risk is very real, with the otter still at large. However, one thing has become clear: You might want to use a hardboard if you’re heading out to the waves.

“It clearly prefers the soft boards, 100%,” said Hohn. “It does not want a hardboard.”