A sea otter steals surfboards near Santa Cruz, California

This past summer, several surfers in Santa Cruz, California, were victims of a crime at sea: boardboarding. The culprit is a female sea otter, who attacks surfers, seizing and damaging their surfboards in the process.

After a weekend in which the otters’ behavior appeared to be more aggressive, area wildlife officials said Monday that they have decided to put an end to these otter poaching acts.

“Due to increased public safety risks, a team from CDFW and the Monterey Bay Aquarium trained to capture and handle sea otters has been deployed to attempt to capture and return them to their habitat,” said a California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesperson. in the current situation.

Local officials call the animal Otter 841. The 5-year-old female is known for her daring behavior and ability to hang 10. She has a tragic backstory, as officials are now forced to take steps that show ways. The human desire to get close to wild animals can cost the animals their freedom, or worse, their lives.

California sea otters, also known as southern sea otters, are an endangered species found only along the central coast of California. Hundreds of thousands of these otters roamed the state’s coastal waters, helping to keep kelp forests healthy while feasting on sea urchins. But when the colonists moved to the West Coast, the species was hunted to near extinction until a ban was imposed in 1911.

Today, there are still about 3,000 people, many in areas frequented by kayakers, surfers, and paddle boarders on the frontier.

Despite such close quarters, interactions between sea otters and humans are still rare. The animals have an innate fear of humans and usually go to great lengths to avoid us, said Tim Tinker, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has spent decades studying marine mammals. He said that sea otters being close to humans is “not normal,” adding, “But just because it’s not normal doesn’t mean it never happens.”

Otters have been known to approach humans during hormonal surges that coincide with pregnancy, or as a result of being frequently fed or approached. This is likely what happened with the mother of Otter 841.

Orphaned and raised in captivity. But after releasing her into the wild, humans started offering her squid and she quickly got used to it. It was removed again when she began kayaking for handouts, and ended up at the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz, where researchers quickly realized she was pregnant. While in captivity, she gave birth to 841.

Her mother raised the pup until she was weaned, then moved to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. To boost her chances of success upon release, the 841’s caregivers took measures to prevent the otters from forming positive bonds with humans, including wearing masks and gowns that obscured their appearance when they were around them.

However, 841 soon lost its fear of humans, though local experts can’t explain precisely why.

“After one year of being in the wild without a problem, we started getting reports of them interacting with surfers, kayakers, and paddle boarders,” said Jessica Foggy, sea otter program manager at Monterey Bay Aquarium. We don’t know why this started. We have no evidence that she was feeding. But it has been going on in the summer for the past two years.”

Otter 841 was first seen climbing aboard a watercraft in Santa Cruz in 2021. At first, the behavior was rare, but over time the otter became bolder. This past weekend, otters were seen stealing surfboards on three separate occasions.

On Monday, John Lee, 40, a software engineer, was surfing at Steamer Lane, a popular surfing spot in Santa Cruz, when 841 approached his board.

“I tried to paddle away,” he said, “but I couldn’t get very far before he took my leash off.”

Mr. Lee let go of his board and watched in horror as the otter climbed on top of it and proceeded to rip off bits of it with its powerful jaws.

“I tried to get it off by turning the board over and pushing it away, but it was so pinned to my skateboard for whatever reason it just kept attacking,” he said.

While Mr. Lee immediately realized the danger he was in, not everyone in the water was aware. Last month, Noah Wormodt, 16, was catching some waves with a friend off Quill Beach in Santa Cruz when the 841 swam.

“I started paddling away trying to avoid it, but she kept getting closer and closer. I jumped off my board and then she jumped onto my board,” he recalls. “He seemed friendly, so we felt very comfortable with him. It was a great experience.”

Caught up in the excitement of the moment, Mr. Wormhoudt said, “He didn’t really like to think about how he might bite my finger.”

The young surfer watched from the water as otters lingered on top of his board as the swell rolled in. “The quackery was crumbling,” said Mr. Wormodt, “catching two lovely waves.”

Such situations are extremely dangerous, said Gina Bentall, director and chief scientist for Sea Otter Savvy, an organization that works to reduce human-caused disturbance to sea otters and promote responsible wildlife viewing. “Otters have sharp teeth and jaws strong enough to crush shellfish,” she said.

Contact with humans is also dangerous for otters. If a human is bitten, the state has no choice but to slowly kill the otter. With so few sea otters left, the loss of even a single individual is an impediment to the species’ recovery.

If the authorities succeed in seizing the 841, it will be returned to the Monterey Bay Aquarium before being transferred to another aquarium, where it will live out its days. Her kidnappers cut their work for them. Several attempts were made to capture her, but none were successful.

“She was very talented at eluding us,” said Mrs. Fuji.

Until the otter can be captured, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife asks surfers to avoid it at all costs.

The experts also had a message for people who share their close encounters with the sea otter on social media.

“Reporting these interactions to the appropriate staff, and not sharing them on social media — where it could be misinterpreted as a fun, positive interaction where it might not be — is really important,” said Ms. Fujie. “I know it’s hard to do. It gets a lot of likes and attention, but in the long run, it can be harmful to the animal.”