Skip to main content

Punishment for Santa Cruz sea otter should be swift and substantial

An otter, known by her research identification number 841, was caught red-handed in a series of videos harassing surfers at Santa Cruz’s world-famous surf spot, Steamer Lane. | Source: Jesse Rogala/The Standard

When state and federal authorities descended on Santa Cruz to capture a naughty sea otter with a penchant for stealing surfboards, all I could hope was that her punishment would be swift and substantial.

The otter, known by her research identification number 841, was caught red-handed in a series of videos harassing surfers at Santa Cruz’s world-famous surf spot, Steamer Lane. Finally, I thought, the video evidence would show the general public what I and other surfers have long known about the dastardly nature of these sea weasels.

But as the otter has continued to evade capture, people have been rushing to her defense, building a fandom that now includes T-shirts, stickers and coffee mugs. 

So-called experts have attempted to launder the reputation of otter-kind, contending that this particular creature’s behavior is unique and most otters are unlikely to attack unprovoked. I have my doubts. 

In my experience, this type of behavior isn’t as unusual as Team Otter would like you to believe. Having encountered these creatures repeatedly over the years along the California coast, I think there’s more to this story than has so far been reported.

Like most people, at first, I found otters scraggly and cute, playing with rocks and adorning themselves in kelp while they float on the ocean’s surface like sponges in a bubble bath. 

But when you get closer, you can see that their fangs, made for cracking open shells—or skulls—are sharp like a wolverine’s. Built of pure muscle and weighing up to 70 pounds, the Santa Cruz sea otter can tread water with half its body above the ocean's surface, rearing its head like a cobra. 

A California sea otter, left, and a Wolverine, right. | Source: Getty Images

Spend enough time with them, and I’ve found they will appear in your nightmares, crawling into your bed while you sleep.

I’ve warned my friends about these dangers for years, ever since I was cornered by a pack of five or so otters on a fateful evening in Santa Cruz in the winter of 2020. 

They laughed at my phobia. So when the story about Otter 841 broke, I felt a sense of vindication. And my curiosity was sparked: Have there been other documented instances of otters behaving badly?

It’s true that sea otters play a vital role in the vitality of a marine ecosystem, eating urchins that would otherwise blanket the ocean floor. It’s also true that they’re downright adorable, known to pick out their favorite rock and carry it around in a pocket of their fur coat. 

A newborn sea otter sleeps on its mother's belly as they float in Saw Mill Bay, Prince William Sound, Alaska. | Source: Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

However, that shouldn’t distract from the species’ less flattering history. A study from 2010 discovered 19 instances in which at least three male sea otters in Monterey attacked juvenile harbor seals, in some cases killing and then forcing themselves sexually onto the seal pups. The researchers suspect that the aggressive interspecies behavior may have been the result of a decrease in the female sea otter population in the years before the study. 

Apparently, sea otters have notoriously violent mating habits. Other researchers have observed male otters killing their female counterparts while mating with them. And one study found that roughly 11% of sea otters found dead on the California coast between 1998 and 2001 were killed, at least in part, by other otters while mating. But then again, perhaps Otter 841 deserves a pass because she is female. 

Nevertheless, the surfers in these recent videos, who refused to relinquish their boards to Otter 841, didn't seem to realize the threat they were under. 

It’s clear to me, at least, that the responding authorities, who have reportedly attempted to capture Otter 841 by deploying helicopters and scuba divers, don’t have what it takes to address this emergency. 

I wonder if the hoards of people who’ve swarmed to Santa Cruz with the hopes of getting a glance of the infamous Otter 841, or those who have capitalized on the opportunity to make a buck selling otter-branded merchandise, would support these foul beasts if they knew about otters’ darker, even necrophiliac, behavior. 

Luckily, “Sharktober” is right around the corner. 

Good luck, Otter 841.

We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our opinion articles. You can email us at Interested in submitting an opinion piece of your own? Review our submission guidelines.

Filed Under