Sightseers chasing Santa Cruz otter could be harming the environment

In Santa Cruz, surfers, paddle-boarders and kayakers have been making waves in an attempt to get up-close and personal with the latest sea show:  a sea otter that shows no shyness.

"They wanna swim with the dolphins. They wanna pet buffaloes. They wanna go touch an otter. They wanna get close," said Santa Rosa tourist Mike Schweska.

For the past few weeks, Otter #841 has made a spectacle of itself. It’s been getting on surfer’s surfboards, biting at ocean-goers, and using one of its forefeet to apparently make a profane gesture to those attempting to make a capture.

Now, people are taking the initiative and making first contact with the creature.

"I photographed three different encounters in the past four days. Every one of them they went within a few feet of the otters," said Mark Woodward, a Santa Cruz-based photographer who writes a blog about the bay and its marine life.

Experts said that otters are good stewards of the environment, spending their time eating the kelp forest in this 6,000 square mile preserve. But, the animals also expend a lot of energy, generating a ravenous appetite.

"With sea otters, if they change their behaviors, they expend energy – which they would otherwise use taking care of their young. Or getting food," said Dan Haifley, a board member of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

He said a change in behavior can have a ripple effect on the environment. And that people – intentionally or accidentally – have harmed their own cause by getting too close to the otters.

On the historic Santa Cruz Wharf, managers at Venture Quest Kayak Rentals said they explain the environmental consequences to renters, and make them sign an agreement to keep clear of otters.

"I’m patient, and I don’t mind repeating and clarifying all those rules and guidelines. Yeah, I’d like people to pay more attention," said the business’s manager.

Santa Cruz photographer Mark Woodward captured new photos of a sea otter that has been exhibiting unusual behavior, taking over another surfboard on Saturday, July 8, 2023.  (Mark Woodward / @NativeSantaCruz)

Divers from the U.S. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Tuesday, continued their almost daily slow-speed chase to catch the otter.

"That’s shocking to me. I wouldn’t think that someone would want to get so close to otters and disrupt their natural environment and like habitat like that," said Santa Cruz resident Erin Wood. "I mean, we gotta respect nature, right?"

Federal officials likely will try again to catch otter 841 to keep that animal safe – and keep people away from other marine life. 

Jesse Gary is a reporter based in the station's South Bay bureau. Follow him on Twitter, @JesseKTVU and on Instagram, @jessegontv


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

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