SANTA CRUZ - Catching a sea otter that's been pilfering surfboards in Santa Cruz is turning out to be a tricky balancing act for wildlife experts who have been given the slip by the animal so far.
Otter 841, her official name, has made international headlines after she was caught on camera bullying surfers off their boards and then happily cruising or gnawing on them.
And she's doing it all while easily slipping the clutches of wildlife officials who have deemed her a threat to public safety and are in a multi-day mission in hopes of capturing her.
Santa Cruz photographer Mark Woodward, who goes by the handle @NativeSantaCruz on Twitter, shared videos of 841 wrestling a board away from a surfer at Cowell Beach last month.
Woodward has also been documenting the efforts of U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials to capture 841, using what appears to be a "bait" surfboard as well as monitoring equipment on the shore.
He told KTVU he saw a boat with more than five divers in wetsuits offshore on Wednesday attempting to lure the otter onto the board, which was tied to the stern. There was also a large empty crate on board to transfer the animal if they succeed.
The bait board was one 841 had already damaged and was donated by the surfer, according to Woodward.
At one point an otter, presumably 841, jumped onto the surfboard and the crew began reeling it in with hopes of pinning the animal down with nets, but she was too quick and slipped back beneath the surface.
"They can't throw a net over it because it will get tangled and drown," Woodward pointed out. "That's also why they can't tranquilize it."
Woodward said he had also spotted a worker with U.S. Fish and Wildlife on the shore tracking the otter on Wednesday using some sort of antennae tracking equipment and communicating with the boat.
After the boat crew's failed attempt earlier in the day, Woodward snapped some photos of a diver floating on the "bait" board and attempting to paddle closer to 841 later in the afternoon, but again she swam away.
On Thursday, there was no sign of U.S. Fish and Wildlife at the beach during Woodward's afternoon visit around 2 p.m.
All he managed to spot was a raft of relaxed otters floating and sleeping in a kelp bed a few hundred yards offshore "just being lazy," he said.
He said he planned to return to the beach in the early evening when 841 seemed to be most active.
Known to the authorities
Wildlife officials were monitoring the otter ever since she was seen commandeering multiple surfers' boards in the area. The animal appears to have no fear of humans and even damages some boards with her teeth and jaws that are strong enough to break through clams.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife told KTVU that the service was authorized the capture the otter after recently trying and failing to use "hazing techniques," which are non-invasive methods to scare an animal away such as playing loud noises.
While 841 is no stranger to wildlife officials, techniques that had worked to deter her from similar behavior just last year appeared to be failing this time around.
"This sea otter was observed with a pup after returning to the Santa Cruz area in May 2022," a U.S. Fish and Wildlife official said in a statement. "She exhibited similar unusual behavior in the Santa Cruz area in September 2022, at which time CDFW and Monterey Bay Aquarium staff successfully hazed the otter preventing further incident throughout the winter."
A social media star is born
With all the media attention, Otter 841 has also become a social media darling, prompting folks across the internet to post memes, jokes, and calls of encouragement for the animal to remain free and elude the authorities.
"One of them needs to go undercover as a surfer to get that otter. Maybe Keanu Reeves can reprise his role from Point Break and catch it," wrote one Twitter user.
"It was too obvious that guy was a cop," replied another user, referring to the apparent bait board and the efforts by wildlife officials to trick 841 into being captured.
Other people are speculating that the otters have teamed up with the orcas to take back the ocean from humans, after multiple reports of killer whales attacking boats in the Atlantic spurred similar jokes and funny conspiracy theories across social media.
"Nothing normal" about this
Despite the jokes, if wildlife officials don't wrangle her quickly, this could all end badly for 841.
If the otter bites a human, wildlife officials will euthanize it.
Woodward said some folks who have commented on his viral video have demanded that wildlife officials leave the otter alone in her natural habitat.
"I'm actually surprised at how controversial this has become online," he said, adding that "there's nothing normal" about 841 bold behavior so close to humans.
If wildlife experts finally capture her, 841 will be brought to the Monterey Bay Aquarium before being transferred to a permanent home in captivity, where she will live out her days.
There are only about 3,000 left in the wild in California, according to Monterey Bay Aquarium, and they are considered endangered. And with California sea otters nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s, losing one now would be a blow to the species' recovery.
"I hope it all just comes to a conclusion very soon," said Woodward.
In the meantime, the wildlife officials are asking surfers and swimmers to avoid the otter in the water for their safety and hers.