Santa Cruz, Calif. – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) are responding to reports of a 5-year-old female southern sea otter exhibiting concerning and unusual behaviors in Santa Cruz, California, including repeatedly approaching surfers and kayakers recreating in the area. Sea otters are naturally wary of people, but this individual has been aggressively approaching people and biting surfboards.
Upon capture, the sea otter will undergo a health assessment and eventually be rehomed in a zoo or aquarium.
Due to the potential public safety risk, a team from CDFW and the Monterey Bay Aquarium (Aquarium) trained in the capture and handling of sea otters has attempted capture of the sea otter when conditions have been favorable since July 2, 2023. Standard methods for capturing healthy wild sea otters have been unusable or ineffective so far due poor underwater visibility, the sea otter’s wariness of nets from previous capture attempts, and the sea otter’s behavioral patterns varying from day to day. Scientists suggest successful capture may take days or weeks given logistical considerations, the sea otter’s behavior, and shifting environmental conditions.
“The usual method for safely capturing healthy, wild sea otters is a clandestine underwater approach,” according to Colleen Young, an environmental scientist and sea otter biologist with CDFW. “In this case, however, the water has generally been too murky for us to see the animal from below. We are adapting other capture methods to this situation but must ensure the safety of both the sea otter and the people attempting capture, which has limited our options and opportunities.”
The sea otter is tagged with a radio transmitter and is being actively monitored by wildlife biologists. The Service authorized the capture of the sea otter after recommending hazing techniques, which were only temporarily effective.
“The goal is the safe capture of this female sea otter to remove the potential public safety risk while also recognizing and acknowledging the important role sea otters play in coastal ecosystems along the Central California coast,” said Lilian Carswell, Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Marine Conservation Coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “While this sea otter’s behavior is highly unusual, this situation amplifies the importance of always keeping a safe distance from all wildlife and not encouraging interactions, such as feeding, that may put an animal or yourself at risk.”
Due to her repeated aggressive behavior and potential public safety risk, upon capture the sea otter will be transported to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where she will be examined by experienced veterinary staff. The Service, CDFW, and the Aquarium will work with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to find her a long-term home in a zoo or aquarium. Euthanasia and other lethal methods are not under consideration.
“Although this otter was born in an animal care facility, she was raised by her mother with minimal human contact,” said Jess Fujii, Sea Otter Program Manager with Monterey Bay Aquarium. “When she was released, she was monitored by wildlife biologists. This otter behaved like a typical otter in the wild for over a year before interactions with people began.”
This sea otter exhibited similar unusual behavior in the Santa Cruz area in September 2022, at which time CDFW and Monterey Bay Aquarium staff successfully hazed her, preventing further incident throughout the winter. There have been no reported interactions with people by this sea otter while at her overwintering site.
Fujii added, “While the exact cause for this sea otter’s behavior is unknown, aggressive behavior in female southern sea otters may be associated with hormonal surges or due to being fed by humans.”
Wildlife officials urge kayakers, surfers, and others recreating in the area to avoid approaching sea otters or encouraging any interactions with wildlife. If you see a sea otter near you, leave the immediate area.
To report a human-sea otter interaction, call the Monterey Bay Aquarium at (831) 648-4840.
About southern sea otters
Southern sea otters are listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They are also protected under the Marine Mammal Act and California state law. Sea otters play a fundamental role in the ecological health of nearshore ecosystems. Their presence in the ocean enhances biodiversity, increases carbon sequestration by kelp and seagrass, and makes the ecosystem more resilient to the effects of climate change.
Unlike whales and seals, sea otters lack blubber. Instead, they rely on their dense fur coat and elevated metabolism to stay warm. The average adult sea otter must eat 20 to 30 percent of its body mass in food each day just to meet its energy requirements. Sea otters need to conserve energy, which means that uninterrupted rest is an important part their well-being.
To minimize the potential for disturbance and harm to sea otters, people sharing sea otter habitat should:
- Be aware of your surroundings and alert to nearby wildlife when recreating
- Maintain a safe distance – if a sea otter notices you, you are likely too close and should back away
- Keep kayaks at least 60 feet (or five kayak lengths) away, passing by parallel rather than pointing directly at any animals and moving slowly but steadily past rather than stopping
- Keep pets on a leash on and around docks and harbors and never allow interactions, even if the animals appear to be playing
- Never feed sea otters, as they can become aggressive, which could result in their removal from the population and placement in an animal care facility
Like all sea otters along the North Pacific rim, southern sea otters were hunted to near extinction during the fur trade of the 1700s and 1800s. The subspecies survived because a few dozen animals eluded hunters off the rugged coast of Big Sur. Southern sea otters are now protected under the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and California state law. The southern sea otter population has grown slowly since receiving federal protections in the 1970s, fluctuating around 3,000 in recent years.
About the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information about our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov/cno/(opens in new tab)
About the California Department of Fish and Wildlife
The mission of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is to manage California’s diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public.
About the Monterey Bay Aquarium
The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the ocean. From sea otters to seaweeds, our unique oceanfront location and timeless galleries bring the wonders of the ocean to life for our visitors. But beyond our exhibits, we are transforming what it means to be an aquarium. Learn more at www.montereybayaquarium.org(opens in new tab).
Ashley McConnell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (for questions related to southern sea otter conservation and management)
Eric Laughlin, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (for questions related to tracking, monitoring and capture)
Kevin Connor, Monterey Bay Aquarium (for questions related to otter history and care after capture)
MAIN IMAGE: Sea otter 841 foraging in shallow water in Santa Cruz, CA. This photo was taken from shore (a cliff) with a 100-400 mm zoom lens. Photo by Lilian Carswell/USFWS