SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (AP) — A sea otter launched into the national spotlight after images of her aggressively wresting surfboards away from surfers off the coast of Santa Cruz, California circulated on social media is building a fan club as she continues to evade capture.
A team of wildlife experts with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium have been trying to capture the 5-year-old animal, known as otter 841, since last week because they say she poses a public safety risk.
They say they want to examine her and relocate her at a zoo or aquarium —as yet to no avail.
She now has a growing fan club, with people showing up every day to get a glimpse of her spending time sunbathing on the rocky shore, diving in the water and chomping down on crabs.
Jessica Fujii, Sea Otter Program Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said the team has faced some challenges in its pursuit, including bad weather.
“The main issue is more just her ability to evade. Because this has been an ongoing effort, she is wary of those nets,” Fujii said.
Federal and state wildlife officials did not return messages from The Associated Press seeking comment Thursday on their effort to catch otter 841.
The mischievous mammal was made famous by a professional photographer who posted photos and videos on social media that show her aggressively approaching surfers and getting on top of surfboards — on at least one occasion biting and tearing chunks off a board.
“They can’t throw a net over her in the water. They can’t tranquilize her because of fear of her drowning. So they really need to get hands on her,” said the Santa Cruz photographer, Mark Woodward.
The team trying to capture her has used a baited surfboard. She’s gotten on it multiple times in the past few days, according to Woodward. But as soon as a wildlife official towing the surfboard carrying her gets near the team’s boat, she dives off, he said.
The otter’s aggressive behavior is highly unusual, and the reason is unknown, federal wildlife officials said.
“Aggressive behavior in female southern sea otters may be associated with hormonal surges or due to being fed by humans,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement last week.
Otter 841 was born in captivity and released into the wild in June 2020. She is tagged with her number and has a radio transmitter that officials have been monitoring to keep tabs on her.
They said it is not the first time the otter has been aggressive toward humans. She was observed approaching people in late 2021. In May 2022, she was spotted with a pup in the Santa Cruz area, and four months later exhibited similar aggressive behavior.
Meanwhile, her fans want her to be left alone.
“Just leave ‘em alone. Just let ’em have fun. Hasn’t bitten anybody. Roughs up the board. It’s like a dog with a chew, you know?” said Jackie Rundell, a Santa Cruz resident who on Wednesday visited the bay.
Southern sea otters, whose population dwindled to about 50 in 1938, are managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. They are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and are protected under the Marine Mammal Act and California state law.
Now with a population of about 3,000, sea otters play a fundamental role in maintaining healthy coastal ecosystems by preying on sea urchins that can multiply and eat their way through the kelp forests both marine creatures share, wildlife officials said.