A surfer in an otter costume protests attempts to capture the surfboard-stealing otter known as Otter 841
A surfer in an otter costume protests attempts by wildlife officials to capture the surfboard-stealing otter known as Otter 841 off Santa Cruz.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

As ‘Free Otter 841' movement grows, expert warns that officials have little choice but to capture it

Although fish and wildlife officials continue efforts to capture the surfboard-stealing sea otter known as Otter 841 and bring her into captivity, local pushback is growing. Some Santa Cruzans and visitors want to see the otter remain in the wild: “I think the ocean belongs to the otter, so we should just let the otter be in her ocean,” said one.

Fish and wildlife officials are facing a growing backlash in Santa Cruz against the efforts to return Otter 841 — the area’s famous surfing otter — to captivity, even as one marine mammal expert said state and federal agencies likely have no choice but to capture the animal.

Meme pages and local art in defense of the otter have popped up on social media, saying that inexperienced surfers are at fault and poking fun at failed efforts to catch 841. The arguments against capturing the crafty otter largely revolve around the fact that the ocean is her home, and as an ocean-dwelling animal her rights should come first.

Staffers from California and U.S. fish and wildlife agencies have attempted for more than a week to capture the wily surfboard-stealing otter and return her to captivity. Among the bystanders who have gathered daily at Cowell Beach to watch the efforts, those supporting the otter’s freedom remain firm in their stance.

Santa Cruzan Jamilah Star is a professional big-wave surfer. She said that because Monterey Bay is a national marine sanctuary, the wildlife within it has a right to remain protected there and should be left alone.

“It’s in its home and this otter has been playing on our boards for a while now,” Star said. “Just hop off your board, let the otter have its space and it will swim away.”

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

Star said she’s encountered a number of animals in her surfing career, such as otters, turtles and dolphins, without finding herself in any danger. “I feel like the mentality of humans has really deteriorated to the point where we don’t even know what to do in an animal encounter,” she said.

Bianca Gruetter and Lauren Shelly of Los Gatos, who were riding their bikes along West Cliff Drive on Tuesday, echoed similar sentiments. “I think the ocean belongs to the otter, so we should just let the otter be in her ocean,” said Gruetter. “When we’re going in there, we’re just borrowing it.”

However, marine biologist Randall Davis said there are a number of reasons why the agencies working to capture 841 plan to bring her into captivity.

An Instagram post in support of Otter 841.
An Instagram post in support of Otter 841.
(thesurfingotter via Instagram)

Davis, a professor of marine biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston, studies the behavioral ecology of marine mammals and other aquatic vertebrates. He has been on 94 research expeditions that have taken him to 64 countries and all of the oceans in the world.

“[Fish and wildlife] is in a bind. There’s no way they can’t pick it up,” he said, emphasizing that an otter bite can cause serious injury. “Then the question is, ‘What are you going to do with it?’”

Santa Cruz’s infamous surfboard-stealing otter remained at large after the latest unsuccessful attempt Monday afternoon...

Raised in captivity

The otter was born in captivity and was released into the wild in summer 2020. Davis said curators and marine lab personnel wore costumes in 841’s presence, so as to not allow her to become accustomed to humans.

“Apparently, it wasn’t successful, because this animal is still habituated to humans,” he said. “Most otters just avoid humans altogether.”

In the past, Davis said, prolonged and frequent human exposure has resulted in behavioral problems among previously captive marine animals, including approaching humans regularly. As a result, Davis said the team pursuing 841 probably sees no alternative but to capture her and put her back into captivity.

“They’re not going to take a chance with somebody being bitten,” he said. “Their concern is the welfare of the surfers and people anywhere else the otter may turn up — and an otter bite is very, very serious.”

Relocation not a viable solution

Relocating 841 to another region of the Pacific Ocean might seem like an easy, viable solution, but Davis said that unfortunately, that isn’t the case. In some areas, shellfish and crab fisherman are concerned that sea otters will eat too much of the same shellfish they are looking to catch. As a result, if the otter were to be relocated, it would require buy-in from the chosen community.

“If you tried to translocate them into Northern California, you’re going to have to do public outreach sessions,” he said. “It’d take years to do something like this.”

Davis said if 841 were placed in the San Francisco area, for example, she could easily end up back in Santa Cruz before too long.

“Sea otters can easily travel great distances, and that otter may end up back in Santa Cruz in less than a month,” he said. “Between the politics, public perception and the safety issue, there aren’t any real easy solutions.”

Otter 841 off Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

Rehabilitation costly and difficult

Davis added that while returning 841 to captivity permanently is likely the best option, it is also a costly endeavor, one that requires a long-term commitment to rehabilitate and care for the animal.

“[The U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service can’t pay for it, the California Department of Fish and Game probably can’t pay for it, so they’d probably go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium,” he said. “But even they may eventually run out of resources.”

Otters have a high metabolic rate, Davis explained. That means they need more food to properly perform basic bodily functions, and eat 20% of their body weight in food every day.

“A 40-pound sea otter consumes almost 10 pounds of high-quality seafood, crabs, clams every day,” he said. “That’s a sizable food budget.”

Veterinary care is intensive, too, even for a place like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“[Monterey Bay] has wonderful facilities, but even they can only handle so many orders at a time,” he said. “Then they have to decide if turning them into a display animal offsets the cost of keeping them in captivity. But many aquaria don’t want to take on the financial burden of sea otters.”

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