SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (KRON) — Santa Cruz’s wild surfing sea otter has attracted many fans with its mischievous pirate-esque passion for stealing surfboards. The fuzzy longboard larcenist was photographed swimming up to surfers, commandeering surfboards, and even catching a few waves.
Wildlife officials tried catching the 5-year-old sea otter earlier this week near Steamer Lane. The crew launched a boat, placed a board as bait in the water, and deployed a decoy surfer. The savvy sea otter didn’t fall for it and she eluded capture.
The sea otter’s fans grew concerned and asked KRON4, why are wildlife officials trying to pluck a wild sea otter out of its ocean home?
On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a statement explaining why officials want to take the otter into captivity.
The 5-year-old female southern sea otter is “exhibiting concerning and unusual behaviors in Santa Cruz, California, including repeatedly approaching surfers and kayakers. This individual has been aggressively approaching people and biting surfboards,” USFWS wrote.
The USFWS authorized the capture of the sea otter after hazing techniques failed to stop the otter’s surfboard antics.
“Due to the potential public safety risk, a team from (California Department of Fish & Wildlife) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium trained in the capture and handling of sea otters has attempted capture of the sea otter when conditions have been favorable since July 2. Standard methods for capturing healthy wild sea otters have been unusable or ineffective so far due poor underwater visibility, the sea otter’s wariness of nets from previous capture attempts, and the sea otter’s behavioral patterns varying from day to day. Scientists suggest successful capture may take days or weeks given logistical considerations, the sea otter’s behavior, and shifting environmental conditions,” USFWS wrote.
Colleen Young, an environmental scientist and sea otter biologist with CDFW, explained, “The usual method for safely capturing healthy, wild sea otters is a clandestine underwater approach. In this case, however, the water has generally been too murky for us to see the animal from below. We are adapting other capture methods to this situation.”
The otter is tagged with a radio transmitter and is being actively monitored by biologists.
As of Friday morning, the sea otter was still wild and free in the open ocean. “She’s one smart little otter,” said local photographer Mark Woodward, who documented the surfing sea otter for several weeks.
If the surfing sea otter is apprehended, she will undergo a health assessment at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and eventually, she will be rehomed in captivity, wildlife officials said.
Euthanasia and other lethal methods are not under consideration, according to USFWS.
“The goal is the safe capture of this female sea otter to remove the potential public safety risk, while also recognizing and acknowledging the important role sea otters play in coastal ecosystems along the Central California coast,” said Lilian Carswell, Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Marine Conservation Coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
USFWS, CDFW, MBA, and Association of Zoos and Aquariums will work together to find her a long-term home in a zoo or aquarium.
Sea otters are naturally wary of people. Why is the surfing sea otter so fearless?
Jess Fujii, sea otter program manager with Monterey Bay Aquarium, explained, “While the exact cause for this sea otter’s behavior is unknown, aggressive behavior in female southern sea otters may be associated with hormonal surges, or due to being fed by humans.”
Sea otters serve a fundamental role in the ecological health of nearshore ecosystems, according to USFWS. Their presence in the ocean enhances biodiversity, increases carbon sequestration by kelp and seagrass, and makes the ecosystem more resilient.