Meet Mark Woodward, the viral photographer capturing Santa Cruz's surfboard-stealing sea otter

Mark Woodward/@NativeSantaCruz

Mark Woodward prefers to be behind the camera, but this summer, he's suddenly found himself in the spotlight — along with a mischievous otter.

Back in June, a sea otter caught the local photographer's eye off Santa Cruz's Cowell Beach while Woodward was covering a Juneteenth celebration.

Edging unusually close to surfers, the fearless otter had a habit of stealing people's surfboards; at one point, she got in a "wrestling match" with a surfer over a board, and was deemed aggressive after leaving bite marks on a board.

A video of the encounter shared on Woodward's Twitter @NativeSantaCruz went viral, and over the next few weeks Woodward returned to take photos of the popular creature as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife attempted to capture her.

He didn't expect the internet to go into a frenzy, though he agreed that the otter is "damn cute." (The otter, dubbed Otter 841 by officials, has still evaded capture.)

"The media outpouring this time has blown me away," Woodward told KTVU in a recent interview this week. "It has gone everywhere."

The photographer hadn't shared his name on social media before Otter 841. But the local-to-international press attention eventually pushed him to share his identity.

Woodward describes himself as "actually very shy," and he very rarely shows his face on camera. 

As a kid, he crashed his bike and broke both his front teeth, and he's been embarrassed about his smile ever since.

But he's smiling now.

This isn't the first time the freelance photographer has captured widespread attention.

Following massive storms that knocked out many residents' power, Santa Cruz declared a state of emergency in January. 

Amid the storms, Woodward shared timely updates on his Twitter, becoming a "lifeline" to people by providing local breaking news and weather information.

"In many cases, people said they only heard about it from me," Woodward said. "So that makes me I'm glad I was doing it, because I just felt like it was a big community service."

His Santa Cruz storm videos racked up millions of views, and he estimated his Instagram following grew from about 5,000 to 30,000. Through his social platforms, he's become a trusted resource in his local community and beyond, which Woodward said makes him "happy, glad, humbled."

People have long gone up to Woodward on trails, spotting his camera and asking if he's the man behind the appreciated Twitter account. Some people have even asked for selfies with him, which Woodward said he's always surprised by.

"They're just so happy to meet me and to thank me in person, and hug me, and thank me for what I was doing during wintertime storms," Woodward said.

Photojournalist Nic Coury of Monterey, who also helped cover the Santa Cruz storms, has known Woodward for years via Twitter. 

As colleagues, Coury said Woodward exemplifies the importance of community members being involved in local journalism.

"He's interested in being a good citizen of sharing information, and really caring about the community that he's in," Coury said. "Those are the kinds of voices that you want to listen to, because they're the ones on the ground every day, and they know the story."

Coury added, in other words, that Woodward simply "just gives a s—."

Woodward has lived in and around Santa Cruz his whole life.

And in all 61 years, he's seen the city change a lot from the "sleepy little town" that he grew up in.

But the one thing that hasn't changed, Woodward said, is the city's sheer natural beauty.

"You know people say Vitamin C is good for you? Vitamin S-E-A is wonderful," he said, noting his love of the Santa Cruz coast. "No matter what my mood is — if I'm in a horrible, bad mood — if I go down and watch the sunset on West Cliff Drive, it fixes everything."

When he was a kid, Woodward loved going to the beach and taking picnics in the mountains with his family. Visiting the Santa Cruz boardwalk, of course, was another highlight, and he later worked as an operations manager for the boardwalk's food service center.

When Woodward goes down to the coast — which is hopefully every few days, he said — he'll usually tow along his trusty camera.

At about 11 years old, Woodward started casually snapping shots with a hand-me-down Brownie. He found taking photos of people often felt like too much pressure, so Woodward turned to what he knew best: nature and wildlife.

The hobby fell to the wayside around his late 20s, but luckily, he picked up the craft up again around 10 years ago due to the appeal of digital cameras.

Woodward shared there's a special story behind his current Nikon camera, the one that photographed Otter 841.

A few years ago, Woodward stooped down to take a video of a water channel when a massive sandy wave unexpectedly engulfed him. His camera got ruined. 

He shared what had happened with his followers. People clamored for Woodward to make a GoFundMe, and after being worn down by his persistent followers, he made an online tip jar via Ko-fi.

To Woodward's surprise, his followers ended up raising him a couple of thousand dollars, which helped him buy a new camera and an even better lens. 

"I was touched so many people wanted to do that," he said.

Woodward said he has many long-time mutual followers, and in fact, he's currently house-sitting for people he got in touch with via Twitter. 

After exchanging a few messages online about the gig, Woodward spoke with them over the phone, and he remembered a comment that one of his new friends had made: "I've never had someone stay here before," she told Woodward, "but I feel like I know you."

Woodward went to the house to meet the couple, and after being shown around, the pair caught him by surprise.

"The man got serious, and said, ‘Well, we wanted to talk to you about something,’" Woodward recounted.

He never would have guessed what the couple was about to give him: a check to help cover his pricey dental costs.

"I'm like, ‘What?’ But they are just that kind of goodhearted people. It still touches me, it unbelievably touches me," Woodward said.

All of these friendships have blossomed out of Woodward following his passion for photography. The practice has helped him not only serve and connect to his community, but it's also helped him recognize the beauty in everyday life.

"I really believe in trying to see the beauty wherever you are, whatever you're doing, because if you look around, there's beauty all around us," he shared.

Even when he doesn't bring his camera while exploring the outdoors, photography has still forever changed his perspective.

"I kind of walk through life now as if I'm looking through a viewfinder," Woodward said. "In some way, it's my therapy."


Surfboard-stealing otter not taking the 'bait' as wildlife officials try to catch her

Wildlife officials are trying to capture the otter using what appears to be a "bait" surfboard, but she's outsmarted them so far.