Wildlife experts seek to capture 'surfing' Santa Cruz sea otter, deemed public safety risk

Sea otter was seen taking over another surfboard off Santa Cruz on Saturday, July 8, 2023. (Mark Woodward / @NativeSantaCruz)

Efforts were underway to capture a sea otter repeatedly seen taking over surfboards and kayaks off Santa Cruz, after wildlife experts deemed the animal presented an increasing public safety risk.

Over the weekend, the otter exhibited multiple instances of aggressive behavior toward surfers off Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz.

In one case that happened on Sunday, video – posted by Santa Cruz photographer Mark Woodward (@NativeSantaCruz) – showed the animal completely fearless of a surfer, in an attempt to get on his board.

"This is a dangerous sea otter, avoid it if at all possible!" wrote Woodward as he shared the video. 

On Saturday, the otter had another interaction, acting aggressively toward a surfer in the famous Steamer Lane surfing area off Cowell's.

"This may seem cute but it’s not, this sea otter was very aggressive and the surfer actually abandoned his board and swam to shore," Woodward shared on social media as he posted photos of the otter on the newly occupied board.

The photographer told KTVU that he spoke with the surfer who was visibly shaken following the encounter.  

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The surfer said that he was engaged in a struggle with the animal, as Woodward described it as a "wrestling match." The otter took over the board as its own and got on it until the surfer got some help in retrieving it.

"A catamaran saw what was happening and got close, which caused the otter to get off the board and they were able to get the board," Woodward explained.

When the surfer got the board back, there were bite marks on it.

Surfer retrieves his board after a sea otter took it over off Santa Cruz on Saturday, July 8, 2023.  (Mark Woodward / @NativeSantaCruz)

On Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) told KTVU in a statement that it was aware of the otter "exhibiting concerning and unusual behaviors."

The agency said a team of trained marine wildlife experts from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium was in the process of working to capture the otter.

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)

The USFWS, which determines when wildlife needs to be taken out of the wild, said it "authorized the capture of the sea otter after recommending hazing techniques, which were only temporarily effective."

The animal, a female about 5 years old, recently gained widespread attention, after images of her approaching multiple surfers and taking over their boards, were posted by Woodward last month.

Biologists say the sea otter is known to them and has been monitored after she was released into the wild. The otter was seen getting onto surfers' boards off Santa Cruz on Sunday, June 18, 2023.  (Mark Woodward / @NativeSantaCruz)

Wildlife officials said the otter had been on their radar for years.

The CDFW said she was actually born in captivity "under very unusual circumstances." Her mother was removed from the wild after she had exhibited aggressive behavior toward people "as a result of having been fed by the public and started associating people with food," state wildlife officials explained.  

After that otter was captured, biologists learned that she was pregnant. 

"She gave birth to the pup in captivity and cared for it until weaning, at which time the pup was released to the wild and the mom was transferred to a facility for long-term care," sea otter biologist Colleen Young explained to KTVU.

The pup was tagged at release and has continually been monitored. 

U.S. wildlife officials said biologists had observed her with a pup after she returned to the Santa Cruz area in May 2022. 

And then last fall, they intervened when she began interacting with humans. 

"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," USFWS said. 

And then recently, she began to demonstrate troubling activity again. 

"While the exact cause for this otter’s behavior is unknown and highly unusual, aggressive behavior in female southern sea otters may be associated with hormonal surges or due to being fed by humans," USFWS explained.

Once captured, she will undergo evaluation by veterinary staff at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Despite her aggressiveness toward humans, U.S. wildlife officials said that there have been no confirmed reports that anyone has been injured by the animal, and they were seeking to ensure it remained that way, as they urged the public to do its part in that endeavor. 

"Due to the highly unusual behavior of this otter," the USFWS said, "kayakers, surfers, and others recreating in the area should not approach the otter or encourage the otter’s interactions."