SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (KRON) — A wild sea otter that became famous over the summer for hopping on surfers’ longboards is now a proud new mother.

Local photographer Mark Woodward captured heartwarming images of “Otter 841” floating in the chilly Monterey Bay with her tiny pup on Tuesday. The sea otter floated on her back and held her napping pup in a kelp bed offshore from the Santa Cruz Lighthouse.

“It was kind of an emotional moment. We all need good news in this world right now,” Woodward told KRON4 on Wednesday.

“Sea Otter 841” snuggles with her pup on Oct. 24, 2023. (Photo by Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

The photographer first started documenting “Otter 841’s” unique passion for surfboards when summer waves were crowded with surfers. The sea otter commandeered a dozen surfboards from unsuspecting surfers next to Steamer Lane, and she caught a few waves at Cowells Beach.

Wildlife officials made several attempts to catch the 5-year-old otter with plans to place her in captivity. Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deployed a decoy surfboard as bait — but the savvy sea otter didn’t fall for it. After eluding capture, “Otter 841” still remains wild and free.

(Photo by Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)
The sea otter catches a wave in July 2023. (Photo by Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)
A curious harbor seal watching the “surfing sea otter” in July 2023. (Photo by Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

On Friday, Woodward noticed the “surfing sea otter” looked pregnant. Sometime between Friday and Tuesday morning, she gave birth, he said. “I felt like a proud a papa. 841 is the only wild animal I’ve ever photographed again, and again, and again,” the photographer said.

“They look well. I watched them for 45 minutes yesterday. 841 was diving for food and left the little one floating on the surface. She seems like a good mom and looks happy. In one photo it looks like she’s smiling,” Woodward told KRON4.

The sea otter forages for food while her pup floats in a kelp bed on Oct. 24, 2023. (Photo by Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

While caring for her newborn, “Otter 841” is staying a little farther out to sea than her usual hangout spots.

While news of the pup is exciting, Woodward said it’s important for sea otter fans to give the mother and pup plenty of space. Do not enter the ocean for a closer look because kayakers and boaters will disturb “Otter 841” at a critical time, he said.

The pup’s fuzzy fur coat is so thick that it naturally bobs like a cork on top of the water. (Photo by Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

Southern sea otters are listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They are also protected under the Marine Mammal Act and state law. Sea otters serve a fundamental role in the ecological health of nearshore ecosystems, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Sea otters have to eat a lot. She can’t afford to be chased off by anybody. It’s really critical.  People need to stay away. Don’t get in your kayak. Watch from West Cliff Drive. Every photo I have taken of 841 is from West Cliff Drive,” Woodward said.

USFWS officials wrote, “Unlike whales and seals, sea otters lack blubber. Instead, they rely on their dense fur coat and elevated metabolism to stay warm. The average adult sea otter must eat 20 to 30 percent of its body mass in food each day just to meet its energy requirements. Sea otters need to conserve energy, which means that uninterrupted rest is an important part their well-being.”

The USFWS said people who share ocean space with sea otters should:

  • Maintain a safe distance. If a sea otter notices you, you are likely too close and should back away
  • Keep kayaks at least 60 feet (or five kayak lengths) away, passing by parallel rather than pointing directly at any animals and moving slowly but steadily past.
  • Keep pets on a leash on and around docks and harbors and never allow interactions, even if the animals appear to be playing.
  • Never feed sea otters, as they can become aggressive, which could result in their removal from the population and placement in captivity.