(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

Selfies by the sea: Otter 841’s popularity renews concerns about humans encroaching on marine wildlife

The growing popularity of Santa Cruz’s Otter 841 is renewing concerns about the damaging ways that humans encroach on marine life. Researchers say ocean tourism, social media and portable cameras are enticing spectators to get closer to wild animals. Some are now raising the alarm that repeated human encounters are harming the animals’ predator-avoidance instincts.

Mark Woodward, the now-viral photographer who was among the first to document Otter 841’s affinity for biting boards and catching waves, was back on West Cliff Drive last weekend — a normal routine for him these days.

But this weekend, rather than observing worrisome otter behavior, he saw even more worrisome behavior coming from the people wading into the water off Santa Cruz. A group of kayakers paddled into a kelp bed that held about 10 sea otters, and one of the men in the group chased after them, continuing to pursue the animals.

“It was just wrong,” said Woodward, who posts on social media under the name Native Santa Cruz. “I was shouting at them from up above, telling them to get away.”

Woodward said that while these instances have happened more over the past week or so, this is nothing new. Even before Otter 841-mania took over local, national and even international media, ocean visitors encroaching on marine animals’ space has been an ongoing problem, especially among kayakers.

That phenomenon has been exacerbated by the advent of social media and easily portable cameras, raising concerns among researchers that repeated disturbances are damaging animals’ predator-avoidance instincts.

“I’m convinced that ‘selfie culture’ and social media exacerbate disturbance,” said Gena Bentall, director and founder of Sea Otter Savvy, a Watsonville-based nonprofit research organization focused on sea otter stewardship and behavior.

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

A disturbance is any action that causes a change in the animal’s behavioral pattern and does not have to be intentional, said Bentall, who has studied sea otter behavior for 20 years: “If the otter notices a human and flees or avoids contact, which usually means diving and swimming away, that’s technically a disturbance.”

She said that although there is no legal requirement that people stay a certain distance away from a marine animal, five kayak lengths — about 65 feet — is a good baseline. “I virtually guarantee that if I see someone getting within that 20-meter boundary,” Bentall said, “they are holding up their cellphone.”

Kayakers gather in a kelp bed to watch a group of otters in Santa Cruz.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

In areas with less human activity, that distance threshold increases, Bentall said, as the animals are less accustomed to human exposure. Although Sea Otter Savvy has not conducted in-depth studies in Santa Cruz, the high number of surfers, kayakers and swimmers in Monterey Bay have likely contributed to a bolder otter population.

“What we’re seeing with 841 is that loss of predator-avoidance behavior, and it can turn into something really quite intensive,” she said. “People want to view them as cuddly pets and don’t give them the respect to view them as wild animals that need space and respect.”

Ocean recreation businesses have taken note of 841 and a high number of otters in the area right now, and are adding more warnings for customers. David Johnston, owner of Venture Quest Kayaking on the municipal wharf, requires kayak renters to sign a rental agreement and a supplemental waiver agreeing to stay at least 100 feet away from marine animals.

“We also go over verbally that they cannot change the behavior of an animal and instruct them on the importance of keeping the species healthy,” he said. “It’s a threatened population that needs rest and space.”

Venture Quest Kayaking has not required the supplemental waiver all the time. Johnston would reintroduce the paperwork when marine animals were very active, like during whale migrations, times when dolphins were present in large numbers, or during high otter activity, like now. However, given the recent fervor over 841’s board biting, he said he’s decided to require the waiver permanently.

So how can seafarers safely observe marine wildlife? Johnston says through guided tours. The personnel in charge of the short expeditions have been trained to safely maneuver the Monterey Bay, keeping wildlife disturbances to a minimum.

Simply relocating 841 to another part of the coast isn’t a solution, Bentall said. The otter can’t be relocated to a remote location because fish and wildlife experts need to be able to get there to track and monitor her.

At the same time, communities tend to weigh tourism and the economic benefits it brings when deciding where to relocate marine mammals, she said. That often means placing an animal in an area easily accessible by humans — something Bentall sees as counterproductive to the well-being of the animals.

A posted sign warning surfers of the aggressive otter lurking in the waters off Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We’re continuously playing catch-up and having to overcome business models that have been in place before this was a problem,” she said, adding that the goal should be keeping otters as close to their natural state as possible. “Putting the needs of the wildlife before ours is going to become more and more important as the human population continues to encroach on wild spaces.”