“Humans are really out here calling this otter just ‘841.’ She ruined some surfboards, she didn’t steal bread in 19th-century France,” wrote an observer watching from afar.
The aquatic creature has taken on star status since wildlife officials announced this month that they were trying to return the 5-year-old southern sea otter to captivity. The animal had been approaching kayakers and biting surfboards near the Northern California coastal city of Santa Cruz — behavior the agencies deemed “concerning and unusual.”
Sea otters don’t generally approach people, so 841’s aggression suggested to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that something was wrong. Maybe the otter was experiencing hormonal changes, or perhaps it had become habituated to humans feeding it.
Whatever the reason, state officials and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided the animal presented too great a public safety risk to remain on the loose. On July 2, teams of otter-handling experts began trying to catch the elusive mammal whenever conditions allowed. The goal, the agencies said, was for 841 to be examined at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and then rehomed to another aquarium or zoo.
The otter in that viral surfboard video is sending humans a warning
So far, that hasn’t happened — and hordes of onlookers are thrilled.
A meme from an Instagram account advocating for the otter to remain free depicts her as Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. Another shows an astronaut instructing his partner that “all the blue stuff” on Earth has always been the otter’s home.
Santa Cruz County-based photographer Mark Woodward, who has been documenting the creature since June, captured an image of a person near the beach dressed as an otter, holding a surfboard painted with the words “KEEP 841 FREE.”
Creators are selling T-shirts, stickers and mugs expressing solidarity with the animal. A petition demanding “research and conservation funding” to protect 841 has collected more than 54,000 signatures.
In a letter to the editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, resident Ann Stadler argued that a surf spot where 841 is frequently spotted belongs to the otter.
“I don’t have all the facts and history of the incidents but it just seems to me to be yet another example of humans feeling that they have the right of way on the earth and that other contemporary species and their rights to their native habitats are expendable,” she wrote.
Karen Dawn of Santa Barbara, Calif., wrote to the Los Angeles Times that wildlife officials were overreacting to the otter’s behavior.
“Surfers worried about their boards can surf somewhere else, while the rest of us enjoy the otter’s antics,” Dawn wrote. “She deserves her freedom, and a better name than 841. How about Laverna, after the Roman goddess of thieves?”
Despite the fun of following 841’s — or Laverna’s — exploits, her surfboard thievery serves as a warning to humans not to get too close. The otter, which was raised at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, initially kept to itself after being released into the wild in 2020. Eventually, it started engaging with people — just like her mother, who had found humans to be a source of food.
Kevin Connor, a spokesman for the aquarium, previously told The Washington Post that while the specific cause of 841’s behavior is unclear, its behavior suggests that it may have been fed.
Giving food to wild sea otters is never a good idea, according to state and federal wildlife officials. They urge swimmers, surfers and boaters to stay away; if an otter notices you, you’re too close.
A radio transmitter attached to 841 enables wildlife biologists to monitor her location as she continues to avoid those who would relocate her. Officials said approaching the animal stealthily from underwater, a common way of catching sea otters, has proved ineffective due to murkiness impeding visibility.
For now, authorities are warning visitors to Santa Cruz beaches about the perils of getting too close to the “aggressive” otter.
“Enter the water at your own risk,” read signs posted by the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Keep away from marine wildlife.”
At the bottom of the notice, smaller letters say: “Signs will be removed when this issue is resolved.”