Sea otter snatching surfboards in California continues to elude capture

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A sea otter who gained attention in the United States after footage surfaced of him aggressively snatching surfers' boards off the coast of Santa Cruz, California, already has a fan club while continuing to elude capture.

A team of experts from 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 it poses a risk to public safety.

Experts said they want to check on the female and relocate her to a zoo or aquarium, but they haven't gotten it yet.

Now the otter has a growing fan club, and people flock every day to watch it sunbathe on the rocky shore, plunge into the water and eat crabs.

Jessica Fujii, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's sea otter program, said the team has faced some challenges in their capture attempt, including bad weather.

“The main problem is his ability to evade. Because these are constant attempts, be wary of those networks,” Fujii said.

Federal and state wildlife officials did not respond to messages from The Associated Press sent Thursday seeking comment on their attempts to trap otter 841.

This mischievous mammal became famous thanks to a professional photographer who uploaded photos and videos to social networks in which he is seen aggressively approaching surfers and climbing on surfboards. On at least one occasion he bit into pieces of a board.

“You can't cast a net in the water. They are unable to reassure her for fear of drowning. So they have to get their hands on it,” said Mark Woodward, a Santa Cruz photographer.

The team that is trying to capture her has used a surfboard with bait. He has climbed on it several times in the past few days, according to Woodward. But as soon as the wildlife official holding the surfboard pulls it closer to the team boat, the otter goes back into the sea, he said.

The otter's aggressive behavior is highly unusual, and the cause is unknown, federal wildlife officials said.

"The aggressive behavior of female southern sea otters may be associated with hormonal surges or due to being fed by humans," the US Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement last week.

Otter 841 was born in captivity and released in June 2020. It has a tag with its number and a radio transmitter that officials have been using to monitor it.

Officials have said it's not the first time the otter has been aggressive towards humans. She was observed approaching people in late 2021. In May 2022, she was seen with an otter pup in the Santa Cruz area, and four months later she displayed similar aggressive behavior.

Meanwhile, her fans want to be left alone.

"Leave her alone. Let him have fun. She hasn't bitten anyone. She only damages the board. She's like a dog with a toy, you know,” said Jackie Rundell, a Santa Cruz resident who visited the bay on Wednesday.

Southern sea otters, whose population dwindled to about 50 in 1938, are cared for by the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service. They are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and are protected by the Marine Mammal Act and California state law.

Currently, its population is about 3,000 specimens. Sea otters play a critical role in the health of coastal ecosystems, feeding on sea urchins that can multiply and feed on the kelp forests the two sea creatures share, according to wildlife officials.

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