There is something, or someone, in the waters of Santa Cruz, California, that is causing quite the shuffle, again. A famed sea otter, known as 841, has recently made a reappearance in the northern California waters after a mysterious absence. Just when surfers thought it was safe to head back into the water, near the end of May, 841 let everyone know she was back.

While humans are often thought of as the biggest threat to sea otters, 841 has a rich history as a beloved terror to Santa Cruz water lovers. This infamous female sea otter was born in captivity at Monterey Bay Aquarium and raised by her mother with limited human interference before her release into the wild in June 2020. Yet, only a year after being deemed fit and healthy to return to the sea, 841 started making appearances in the Santa Cruz waters. 

Reports began coming in of a sassy otter harassing kayakers and other sea otters, leading the aquarium and the Department of Fish and Wildlife to believe the incidents were all connected to the same sea otter. This most-wanted marine mammal created chaos for Santa Cruz surfers, joining them on their boards and taking snacks out of their bags. Yet, it wasn’t until 2023 that 841 really started to generate some attention. 

Photographer and Santa Cruz native Mark Woodward is recognized as a bit of an expert on 841, having captured many mug shots of the sea otter’s problematic behavior that caught the world’s attention last summer, biting and hijacking surfboards throughout the season. Videos can be viewed of 841 hopping on unattended and attended surfboards, getting rather aggressive as the sea pirate tries to make off with her stolen goods. 

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After a summer of mischief and mayhem, 841 disappeared from the waters, effectively evading the efforts of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to set up a dragnet operation to catch the ornery otter. But by October, 841 headed back to the Santa Cruz waters, accompanied by her pup and appearing to have traded her criminal behavior for motherhood. Some experts believe that the sea otter’s previous behaviors were related to her pregnancy, bringing out aggressive behaviors from an animal typically not known to approach humans, let alone show such aggression. Yet, before the end of the year, 841 made her way out of Santa Cruz waters again. 

Woodward caught sight of 841 over Memorial Day weekend, stating that, “When I saw her, she was feeding, really close to the cliffs… She was being very respectful of the surfers.” 

But while 841 may be behaving well, wildlife officials are turning to Woodward for support, hoping the photographer can spread the word about giving the sea otter significant space. The photographer recently wrote on Facebook at the request of various governmental agencies, “For their safety, stay at least 50’ away from sea otters and all marine life, it’s the law and also common sense, so please help keep them safe.”

While many surfers appear to be excited about 841’s reappearance, California law would force 841 to be captured and euthanized if she happens to get her teeth on human flesh in her pursuit of a surfboard – making keeping a safe distance important for all parties in the water.