The ballad of Otter 841 — Santa Cruz’s adorable outlaw

A female sea otter floats on her back in the ocean.
The otter known as 841 made a splash last month for her habit of swiping surfers’ boards in Santa Cruz.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, July 21.

She’s wanted by the feds, but this adorable little outlaw is not going quietly.

For a little over a week, federal and state wildlife officials, along with biologists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, have been trying — but so far failing — to capture a 5-year-old female southern sea otter, dubbed 841, in the waters off Santa Cruz. The U.S. Coast Guard even joined in the dragnet this week with boats and a helicopter.

That’s a lot of heat for one otter, who’s being sought for her recent headline-making habit of swimming up to surfers and swiping their boards, then lying on and sometimes chomping into them.


841 made her first big splash last month, when photos and video of her catching waves also caught media attention.

But where most onlookers saw a playfully curious critter, wildlife experts saw “aggressive behavior and [a] potential public safety risk,” according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Officials wrote that 841 will be captured and taken to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to be examined. The various agencies will then work “to find her a long-term home in a zoo or aquarium.”

So far, that’s been easier said than done, as Times reporter Susanne Rust wrote this week:

“The spectacle of a land, sea and air dragnet is causing some to wonder if it’s worth the effort. At the same time, some observers speculate that 841’s aggressive behavior may be due to hormonal surges brought on by pregnancy.”


She’s being tracked via a radio transmitter and has a tag on her foot, indicating she was born in captivity and later released as part of the aquarium’s efforts to boost the otter population.

Sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction in the early 1900s, but since federal and state protections were enacted in the 1970s, they’ve bounced back to a population of about 3,000. They remain categorized as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

It’s easy to root for 841. After all, recreating humans are the ones entering her natural habitat. Is it fair that she’s now being targeted for relocation? Some of her fans don’t think so and want the hunt to be called off.

“This is her home,” San Bruno resident Jessica Beane told Susanne this week. “They should leave her alone and let her be.”

With all the media attention, 841 has become something of a furry folk hero, inspiring meme accounts and plenty of online otter nonsense. And since it’s 2023, yes, people are selling 841 merch.


But wildlife officials and marine biologists who study the local population around Monterey Bay say the otter’s actions have forced their hand.

While officials can’t yet determine the exact cause for 841’s “unusual behaviors,” Jessica Fujii, who manages the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sea otter program, said it is “not representative of the southern sea otter population.”

“The behavior of laying on the surfboard appears similar when sea otters haul themselves out of the water to rest on a rocky shore or mudflat, but it is more concerning because Otter 841 is not showing any of the instinctual avoidance of people that she needs to survive in the wild,” Fujii said. “The potential risk to safety to the animal and people is our primary focus.”

A sea otter looks back at a surfer after climbing onto their board
Otter 841 swipes a surfer’s board near the Santa Cruz shoreline.
(Mark Woodward)

She added that it’s “inaccurate to assume [841’s] behavior is the result of people simply being in the ocean” and that most of the “aggressive interactions that have been observed appeared to be unprovoked by the person in the water.”

Fujii isn’t surprised by all the sea otter love spreading on social media and hopes the attention on this particular otter “makes people more aware of the important role sea otters play in coastal ecosystem health and how people can respectfully and safely enjoy seeing them in the wild.”


“People find sea otters very cute, but we need to remember they are not our pets,” she said. “They’re wild animals and we need to give them space.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.


Someone who played the Powerball in Los Angeles is about to be $1.08 billion richer (before taxes). A winning ticket for Wednesday night’s lottery drawing was purchased at a market on the edge of Skid Row, prompting lots of excitement in the neighborhood. Los Angeles Times

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death. While many know the Asian American actor’s lasting mark on martial arts, less is known about his life in Los Angeles as he struggled to make it in Hollywood. LAist


An audience member holds a sign that reads: "Censorship is unAmerican" while sitting in a crowd.
An audience member hold sup a sign that says “Censorship is unAmerican” during a school board meeting on July 18, 2023 in Temecula.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s book battle with a SoCal school district doesn’t show any signs of stopping. During this week’s Temecula Valley Unified meeting, some parents called the governor a “tyrant” for targeting the district after its leaders rejected proposed instructional material that mentioned Harvey Milk. Newsom is now fast-tracking legislation that would give the state more power over school curriculum. Los Angeles Times

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A California town is on alert after E. coli was detected in its water supply. Several people have been sickened in the small Shasta County community of Burney, leading to ER visits and restaurant shutdowns. Los Angeles Times

Journalists have a knack for uncomfortable questions, and this one from Times energy reporter Sammy Roth is a doozy: “Would it be easier and less expensive to limit climate change ... if we were willing to live with the occasional blackout?” Sammy looked for answers in his latest Boiling Point newsletter. Los Angeles Times


Anchor Brewing might not be sunk after all. The union representing employees at the historic San Francisco brewery has made an offer to buy the company and create an employee-owned cooperative. San Francisco Chronicle

The con must go on. San Diego’s popular Comic-Con will have a different vibe this year, with striking actors and writers absent and major studios pulling out. The Times’ convention experts explain what to expect. Los Angeles Times


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Today’s California landmark is from Eric Preven of Los Angeles: Cayucos Pier on the edge of the Central Coast.

A pier seen against a golden sky with clouds
Cayucos Pier, photographed in October 2022.
(Eric Preven)

Eric offered some history of the area and a travel tip:

From approximately 11,000 to 10,000 BC, Chumash and Salinan people settled along the central coast. There was a large Chumash village to the south of Cayucos at Morro Creek. Walking along the rock pools at low tide is fun and Route 46 to Paso Robles is an easy scenic drive.

What are California’s essential landmarks? Fill out this form to send us your photos of a special spot in California — natural or human-made. Tell us why it’s interesting and what makes it a symbol of life in the Golden State. Please be sure to include only photos taken directly by you. Your submission could be featured in a future edition of the newsletter.

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