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Elusive surfboard-stealing Otter 841 back in Santa Cruz, up to her old tricks

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Surfer Karl Anderle knew just whom he was dealing with Saturday in Santa Cruz when he turned around and saw a large adult sea otter sitting on the back of his board: Otter 841, the notorious marine mammal whose surfboard-stealing and wave-riding rampage last summer captured the world’s attention.

“I’m going over in my mind what I should do,” said Anderle, 69, who had been sitting up on his board at a surfing contest as a volunteer keeping non-competitors out of the competition zone. “I didn’t really want her to bite me. I didn’t want to be that guy fighting an otter in the middle of a surf contest. I had to maintain my cool.”

Anderle, who said he has observed Otter 841 frequently over the past couple of years and watched her steal a surfboard from a friend last summer, slid into the water and held onto his board as the creature, bearing her characteristic non-functional light-blue tracking tag, indulged her proclivity for chewing on soft-topped surfboards.

Local officials call this female sea otter 841, raised in captivity, the otter has been climbing aboard and commandeering surfer's boards as they wait for waves at various Santa Cruz beaches. (Photo by Mark Woodward/Native Santa Cruz)
Local officials call this female sea otter 841, raised in captivity, the otter has been climbing aboard and commandeering surfer’s boards as they wait for waves at various Santa Cruz beaches. (Photo by Mark Woodward/Native Santa Cruz) 

Anderle tipped his board up, hoping the animal would hop off, but she scooted up and clung on, he said. So, he decided he would “hang and chill and pretend that this is normal.”

For about 15 minutes, the otter laid on the end of his board, rolled around a bit, and continued to chew, Anderle said Tuesday, showing about a dozen punctures and furrows the creature’s teeth left in the foam surfboard top.

Otter 841, six years old, garnered world-wide fame last summer after Santa Cruz photographer Mark Woodward captured photos and videos of her stealing a surfboard, and even riding a wave. The aggressive behavior by the otter — born in captivity at a UC Santa Cruz research center, and raised by her mother at the Monterey Bay Aquarium before being released — led federal and state wildlife authorities to spend months in a fruitless quest to apprehend her using boats, nets, cages and scuba divers.

The capture attempts played out very publicly just offshore at Santa Cruz’s iconic Steamer Lane surf spot near Lighthouse Point.

“They looked silly chasing an otter around with a net, not catching her,” Santa Cruz surfer Rob Betthauser recalled Tuesday as he pulled up at the Lane with his surfboard on his bike.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday it was responding to reports of Otter 841 recently approaching surfers and kayakers in Santa Cruz.

Otter 841 paddles by with lunch in her paws on Tuesday as a surfer strokes into the lineup at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz. The marine mammal rocketed to international fame when she was recorded by Mark Woodward in July 2023 stealing surfboards from surfers at Steamer Lane. She then increased her worldwide sensation when she appeared in the same spot with a pup in October. (Shmuel Thaler - Santa Cruz Sentinel)
Otter 841 paddles by with lunch in her paws on Tuesday as a surfer strokes into the lineup at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz. The marine mammal rocketed to international fame when she was recorded by Mark Woodward in July 2023 stealing surfboards from surfers at Steamer Lane. She then increased her worldwide sensation when she appeared in the same spot with a pup in October. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

“Sea otters are naturally wary of people, but some individuals exhibit aggressive tendencies that may be exacerbated by pregnancy, illegal feeding, or repeated exposure to close approaches by people,” the agency said. “There are no immediate plans to attempt capture of 841.”

Otter 841’s image is featured on stickers, and clothing including t-shirts and caps bearing the message, “Being an otter is not a crime.” She gave birth to a tiny pup in the fall. “While she was caring for her pup, 841 largely avoided interactions with people,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Woodward said Tuesday he had not seen the creature since late December, but when video and photos of Anderle’s encounter circulated Saturday, he headed to the coast Sunday afternoon from his Santa Cruz Mountains home.

At first, he could not spot the animal that thanks to his imagery had graced the pages and websites of the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, the BBC, and newspapers and TV stations in the Bay Area and far beyond. Then, after the second day of the surfing contest wrapped up, “there she was,” Woodward said.

He initially felt a sense of relief, he said.

“She looked good, healthy, eating a ton — a couple of times it was crabs, her favorite, and it looked like she also was getting some sea urchins,” he said. “I hadn’t seen her since the end of December, right before we started to get the really massive storms roll through with the giant waves. No one knew what happened to her.”

The otter came close to shore, where bystanders and surfing-contest spectators lined up at the fence along the cliff to watch her. “When I pointed out to people that the otter they were looking at was 841 they were just thrilled — it was like seeing a celebrity,” Woodward said.

But Woodward also began to fret. Otter 841’s notoriety last summer led many people in kayaks and on paddle boards to seek her out in the kelp beds and, in violation of federal wildlife law, get within a few feet of her.

“It was insane,” Woodward recalled. “We even had a jet ski running through the kelp beds one day.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which worked with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Monterey Bay Aquarium to try to catch Otter 841, issued an advisory focused on sea otters.

“Summer is coming, and many of us are going to be out recreating on the ocean,” the agency said in the advisory. “Let’s work together to keep sea otters healthy and wild. That means keeping a safe distance so sea otters can rest, feed, and take care of their pups.”

People on and in the water should stay at least 60 feet away from otters, and if one approaches, should move away, according to the advisory. If an otter pursues a person, they should make noise and slap the water with a paddle or hand, the agency recommended. Anderle’s attempt to tip Otter 841 off his board fits with the agency’s advice for surfers in his situation, to rock their board and make it unstable, and not touch the otter.

Anderle was getting cold as Otter 841 continued to lounge and chew on his board. He kicked gently toward shore. “I was just going to hang out,” he said, “until she decided to leave.”

Finally, as he approached the cliffs lined with spectators, the animal slid off his board.

“It was pretty cool,” he said.



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