A sea otter sitting on a surfboard.

“This rental is mine!” Photo: NativeSantaCuz//Instagram

The Inertia

Among the many headlined stories featured in the “mainstream media” lately, there have appeared several that reveal a pattern especially startling to anyone who spends much time in the ocean: increasing incidences of marine mammals exhibiting aggressive behavior towards humans. Reports of pods of Orcas deliberately vandalizing boats off the Strait of Gibralter, bottle-nose dolphins “terrorizing” and even ramming swimmers along Japan’s Fekui shoreline and, closest to home, an errant, decidedly aggro sea otter who’s been harassing Santa Cruz surfers, in some cases actually purloining their surfboards.

Now to be fair, orcas have long been known as “killer whales,” an ominous appellation if there ever was one (though this new habit of nibbling on sailboat tillers might be seen as their version of just f-cking with us) and dolphins have very often been seen using a battering technique on menacing sharks (their mirthless grins bordering on the ironic), but the sea otter? The eminently adorable, demonstratively playful, cute-whiskered and cuddly sea otter? What circumstances could possibly have led to this aberrant behavior? While I’m nobody’s biologist or wildlife expert, I’ve got a provocative theory.

I clearly remember the first time I saw a sea otter in the wild. Sitting on my board off California’s Central Coast in the early 1980s – the San Simeon area, to be exact – I found myself puzzling over an odd tapping noise, very distinct from the usual sea-sounds. Looking over to a nearby kelp patch, I was surprised, and then delighted, to see an adult sea otter, floating on its back, methodically cracking a clam on a rock balanced on its belly. Of course, I’d seen this remarkably adaptive behavior demonstrated in aquariums and numerous nature documentaries, but even having surfed much of California’s coastline from north to south, I’d never seen a wild sea otter. Not many other people had either, and for very good reason: by the early 20th century they’d been virtually wiped out as a species.

It’s estimated that by the early 18th century, 150,000 to 300,000 sea otters frolicked along shorelines from Northern Japan to North America, and all the way down to Central Baja. About this time came the discovery that the sea otter’s fur was the thickest [read: most luxurious] of any mammal, so naturally, a voracious, centuries-long fur trade began, with Russian, British and later American hunters decimating the otter population in search of the much sought-after “soft gold.”

By the early 20th century the sea otter was believed to be extinct along North America’s Pacific coast, when the last individual was shot and killed in Oregon in 1906. Then, in 1938, a single colony of 50 sea otters was discovered hiding out in the lush Big Sur kelp forests off Bixby Creek, and it’s believed that all California sea otters can trace their bloodlines back to this single group of hardy holdouts.

Since that time sea otters have made an impressive comeback along California’s coast. Being designated an endangered species and protected by the Marine Mammal Act has obviously played a big role in the species’ recovery – it’s now thought that an estimated 3,000 sea otters exist here in the wild. To make doubly sure, however, beginning in the 1980s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a program to relocate 140 otters to San Nicholas Island, one of the California coast’s most remote Channel Islands. And here’s where things start to get interesting, so far as my theory about the agro Santa Cruz sea otter is concerned.

Soon after being dropped off on Nicholas, almost half the colony bailed on their new island home, swimming the 61 miles back to the mainland, where they took up residence – wisely so, would say most surfers – along the coastline then known as the Hollister/Bixby Ranch. Here they came into contact with surfers on a more regular basis – in the Ranch’s case, a very certain type of surfer. Surfers who understandably appreciated the exclusive nature of the coastal experience in what still amounts to a private reserve, and for decades have been working diligently in ways both lamentable and commendable to hold back the ravening hordes. In that sense, providing a peaceful home for their bewhiskered brethren by keeping the waves un-crowded. Hence, no reports of salty sea otters stealing grumpy Ranch locals’ boards at Rights and Lefts.

But what about Santa Cruz, and inundated breaks like Steamer Lane? Well, think about what sort of environment that the five year-old female known by those tracking her as Otter 841 has experienced in her three years since being released into the wild in 2020 – and into close contact with Steamer Lane surfers. Then think about her release date, the country’s first COVID lockdowns beginning in March of that year. Now consider the myriad anecdotal (yet to most of us clearly obvious) accounts charting the increased number of beginner and intermediate surfers taking advantage of surfing-as-outdoor-activity benefits during the pandemic. Picture the surfboards many of these neophytes chose to begin their wave-riding adventure on: Costco Wave Storms and Gerry Lopez soft-tops. Finally, look at the many videos flooding the Internet of Otter 841’s predations, as she menaces, then makes off with her victim’s boards. What do they all have in common? They’re all riding soft-tops. The implication being that 841 has, for some reason, been targeting kooks.

Area wildlife experts, who as of this date are still unable to corral the furry felon, are baffled by 841’s aggression, citing no previous accounts of sea otters exhibiting this sort of errant behavior. They obviously haven’t spent much time surfing Steamer Lane. If they had, they’d know there’s nothing unusual about the way 841 is behaving. She’s just your typical Steamer Lane local, treating those surfers they consider to be kooks the way Steamer Lane locals have always been treating them. It’s just good ‘ol fashioned localism, gone wild. So you go, girl – Westside Rules!


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