Fish and wildlife officials attempt to catch the surfboard-stealing otter known as Otter 841 in July.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

Otter 841 still roaming free as Fish & Wildlife struggles to capture her

Otter 841 remains free in the Santa Cruz waters, even as state and federal fish and wildlife workers continue to try to capture her. They could halt attempts if ocean conditions like visibility and water clarity worsen, or if surfers stop reporting run-ins.

In mid-July, Santa Cruz’s surfboard-stealing otter, Otter 841, made waves on the internet and across local, national and international media. More than a month later, the furry celebrity is still roaming free in the waters off West Cliff Drive.

For weeks, personnel from California and U.S. fish and wildlife agencies have attempted to capture 841 and return her to captivity. However, she has consistently evaded the teams’ attempts, and she remains at large.

Mark Woodward, the local photographer who was among the first to capture the otter’s run-ins with surfers and whose photos and videos of 841 subsequently went viral, has continued to monitor the capture attempts periodically. He checked out the scene early last week and saw the largest team of state and federal workers he’s seen so far.

“There were five people on the boat with two traps, and a few more on shore with antennas and scopes,” he said.

Typically, the fish and wildlife boat would have around three people aboard. On some days, one person would remain on West Cliff Drive with a tracking antenna, relaying 841’s location to the boat. But despite those added personnel, the team came up empty yet again.

The team does not head out to the waters every day, as officials must evaluate environmental conditions like water clarity and visibility, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Ashley McConnell. Should conditions consistently hamper capture efforts, the team could have to decide whether to continue trying; it could also cease capture attempts if surfers stop reporting encounters with the feisty marine mammal.

Lookout’s coverage of the surfboard-stealing sea otter known as Otter 841.

“If ocean conditions prevent successful capture efforts, or if the interactions with people cease, capture efforts may be suspended or halted entirely,” McConnell said via email. “The purpose of the capture efforts is to eliminate the potential risks posed to both people and the sea otter associated with the current interactions.”

Woodward said that though he has not seen more board biting or surfing in a while, he has heard anecdotes of a few recent run-ins in which 841 hopped onto a board: “I don’t think she’s changed much.”

Though fish and wildlife officials have not explicitly said they had plans to halt capture attempts, it has been quite a difficult task. According to Woodward, on the most recent attempt, the boat hovered around a kelp bed — a common resting place for otters — but could not locate 841.

As soon as it drove off, she popped up right below the surfer statue, casually swimming along.

“She’s certainly a clever one,” said Woodward.

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