Sea otters: they don't normally approach humans | Illustration: SurferToday

Santa Cruz, California, a beloved surfing haven, has recently witnessed an unforeseen tide of felonious activity. But this isn't your typical surf crime.

A local celebrity, affectionately known as "Otter 841," has developed a penchant for commandeering surfboards from their bemused owners.

Otter 841, a five-year-old female sea otter, has made headlines for her audacious antics on the waves.

After an especially raucous weekend of high-seas larceny, California wildlife officials made a resolution: it was time to intervene.

They're now actively attempting to capture and rehome this agile aquatic larcenist.

Sea otters, specifically California's endangered southern sea otters, once thrived along the state's central coast, where they played an integral role in maintaining kelp forest health.

Over the years, though, their numbers have significantly dwindled due to hunting, with a meager 3,000 or so remaining today.

No Fear of Humans

Despite their dwindling numbers and usual wariness of humans, Otter 841 has shed any such inhibitions.

But this isn't a whimsical tale of an otter living out its surfing dreams.

There's a backstory to 841's interactions with humans that underlines the impact of people's desire to engage with wild animals.

Jessica Fujii is the scientific and operational leader of the sea otter program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

She told Los Angeles Times that, five years ago, a remarkable incident occurred in Monterey Bay involving an otter that would approach kayaks.

According to Fujii, the otter was likely illicitly fed by individuals, a common factor that triggers such aggressive conduct.

Regrettably, it became necessary to capture that otter.

Upon examination, researchers discovered that the captured otter was actually pregnant.

She gave birth, and the offspring - affectionately tagged and closely monitored since its release into the wild - has now become the surfboard snatcher.

Fujii clarified that the pup's upbringing in captivity rules out the possibility of acquiring the behavior from its mother.

Furthermore, it is improbable that her aggressive actions stem from being accustomed to humans during her brief period in captivity.

"We do not know why this started. We have no evidence that she was fed. But it has persisted in the summers for the last couple of years," Fujii told The New York Times.

Despite efforts to prevent 841 from associating humans with positive experiences, the animal's interactions with surfers and paddle boarders escalated over the years.

Tim Tinker is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

"A sea otter approaching a human isn't normal," he told The New York Times, though conceded that anomalies do occur.

The behavioral pattern exhibited by 841 has left experts scratching their heads.

Avoid Contact

The daring otter's bravado, however, isn't all fun and games.

When the otter targeted software engineer Joon Lee, it resulted in him being separated from his board after the otter bit off his leash.

This escalation in aggressive behavior has prompted increased concern for both human and otter safety.

Sea otters are endowed with powerful jaws, and an encounter can be perilous for an unsuspecting human.

Equally, an otter biting a human could lead to euthanasia for the otter - a significant loss for the endangered species.

As such, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is urging the public to avoid contact with Otter 841 until she can be safely captured and relocated.

This endeavor, however, is proving challenging, given her uncanny knack for evasion.

The case of Otter 841 serves as a poignant reminder of the need for responsible wildlife viewing.

Sharing these interactions on social media can inadvertently portray the situation as a harmless amusement, overshadowing the real threats to both the animal and the human.

While the authorities continue their efforts to capture 841, her surfing exploits have made her an unlikely celebrity.

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