A renegade sea otter is terrorizing California surfers: ‘It’s a little scary’

A sea otter on a surfboard looks at a person in the ocean.
A sea otter looks back at a surfer after climbing onto their board.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)
Share via

It was Joon Lee’s fourth time surfing on Sunday.

The 40-year-old Apple software engineer from San Jose had rented a board and driven south to Santa Cruz to catch some waves off the coast of the iconic surf town.

But about 90 minutes into his session, he was attacked — by a sea otter.

Since mid-June, an otter — which remains nameless — has been attacking and terrorizing surfers off the Santa Cruz coastline — in at least one case, stealing a board.

In recent days, the attacks have grown increasingly aggressive.

The story of Tuffy, a baby red-tailed hawk who was kidnapped by a family of bald eagles, has come to a sad end following a failed rescue attempt.

July 6, 2023

Lee said he’d been surfing near an otter for most of the time he was there — in Steamer Lane, off Cowell Beach. “It was being peaceful and friendly, and all of us surfers were like, ‘Oh, it’s so cute,’” he said.


But then another otter appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and swam at another surfer.

“At first, we were like, ‘Look how cute?’ But then it bit down on the board and chewed off a piece, and we were like. ‘What’s going on?’” he said.

That’s when it turned its eyes on Lee and made a beeline for him.

“I was scared. I was trying to swim away, but before I was able to get far, it bit my leash,” he said, describing the tether surfers wear around their ankle that connects them to the board. “So I panicked.”

He said the otter jumped on his board and began biting it. He tried to flip the board, but the otter got right back on — and started lunging at him.

He was ultimately able to get to shore, but not before being fully terrified and drained from exhaustion.

A sea otter is on a surfboard while a person hangs on to one end in the ocean.
A sea otter climbs onto the board of a surfer on June 18, 2023, in Santa Cruz. Since mid-June, the tagged otter has been terrorizing surfers off the Santa Cruz coastline.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)


According to Mark Woodward — a photographer and social media influencer who goes by the name @NativeSantaCruz on Twitter, Instagram and Threads — the attack is not isolated. Woodward said he’s documented a number of similar episodes and believes they have been escalating in ferocity since mid-June.

He said he’d heard a report last year about an otter grabbing a surfboard off the coast, but it wasn’t until Juneteenth that he saw it with his own eyes — and the thieving spree really got underway.

Woodward was standing on the bluff by a lighthouse, photographing a Black Santa surf event off Cowell Beach, when he saw a hefty sea otter torpedo toward a surfboard, wrest it from the startled surfer, and then catch a few solo waves.

An adult sea otter can weigh 30 to 100 pounds, and reach 5 feet in length.

Since then, Woodward has witnessed three more encounters and has heard about plenty more. He said the otter — which can be identified by the blue tag on the webbing between the toes of its left foot — seems to be growing increasingly aggressive.

Woodward videotaped Lee’s encounter while standing on a bluff high above the scene. It was unnerving to watch, as otters have powerful jaws that can crack through the shells of crabs, mussels, sea urchins and other food sources.


A sea otter chews on a brightly colored surfboard.
A sea otter munches on a surfboard after frightening off a human surfer recently in Santa Cruz.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

“It’s a little scary. They seem so cute and docile, but these animals are predators. Their bite is as strong as a wolverine’s,” Woodward said.

Although it’s not true that an otter has a more powerful bite than a wolverine, it is much stronger than the bite of a human. The force of an otter’s bite has been estimated to be 615 pounds per square inch, while a wolverine’s can reach 1,720 pounds per square inch. The average person’s bite force is about 162 pounds per square inch.

In the wake of mounting incidents — which were first viewed with amusement — federal and state wildlife officials have decided they need to remove the young otter from the wild, before it hurts someone — or itself.

A city worker posted signs Tuesday morning along West Cliff Drive warning surfers of an “aggressive sea otter” in the area and to enter the water at their own risk.

A sign on a shore warns of an aggressive sea otter. "Enter at your own risk," it says.
A sign warns beachgoers of an aggressive sea otter after a series of incidents in which a tagged otter has menaced surfers.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz.)

“I would start just by saying that this is very unusual and rare,” said Jessica Fujii, scientific and operational leader of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program. “I would not characterize this as a common behavior for sea otters. We have seen similar instances, you know, over the last several decades ... but the persistence and pattern of this particular otter is fairly unique.”

Five years ago, there was an otter in Monterey Bay that approached kayaks. That otter, Fujii said, had probably been fed illegally by people — a common trigger for this kind of aggressive behavior.

Sadly, that otter had to be trapped.

But here’s where things get a little weird: When researchers got it in for observation, they realized it was pregnant. She gave birth. And that pup — which they tagged and have followed since they released her into the wild — is now the surfboard thief.

Because the pup was raised in captivity, she could not have learned the behavior from her mother, Fujii said. It’s also unlikely her aggressive behavior is the result of becoming habituated to humans during her brief time in captivity.

Killer whales have reportedly attacked more than 500 boats in European waters recently. Are they exacting revenge for humanity’s treatment of orcas?

June 26, 2023

Fujii said the aquarium and other marine mammal partner organizations work hard to make sure the young reared in their facilities have little interaction with people. And, she said, the otter started exhibiting this behavior only recently; for two years, she didn’t do anything like this.


Had she been fed too?

Fujii said they’ve been able to track her since she was released. And as far as they can tell, there’s no indication the otter was interacting with people other than during these recent surfing events.

A sea otter climbs onto the board of a surfer as a surfer on another board watches.
A sea otter climbs onto the board of a surfer in waters off Santa Cruz recently. Officials are attempting to capture the animal, saying it is unusually aggressive.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

Instead, like other otters, she spends most of her time feeding, floating, swimming and napping on the surface of the kelp forests along the Santa Cruz coastline. She has been known to travel a bit too; Fujii and her colleagues have tracked her swimming a bit north of the bay a few times.

She’s also given birth twice. The first offspring survived; the second, born this spring, did not.

Fujii said female otters gestate for about six months and then keep their young for another six months before weaning them.


It’s possible the otter is pregnant again, she said. Otter moms will often go immediately into estrus if they lose a pup. However, until they get her in for observation, they won’t know.

Fujii said otters require a lot of food energy to keep warm and fit in the chilly Pacific waters, and that those demands double for mother otters who must feed their unborn pups and then provide enough rich, fatty, nutrient milk to feed their young.

On Monday evening, a Times reporter spotted the otter lollygagging along the coast between the lighthouse and the nearby surfer statue. She was eating a crab that she held between her front paws as she floated on her back. A gull followed her closely.

Bite marks are on a surfboard.
Sea otter bite marks are seen on a surfboard after an incident in which a surfer was scared off by the animal’s aggressive behavior.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

She paid no mind to the two or three surfers who waited for a swell that never really came; the sea off Lighthouse Point was calm and the wind mild.

Fujii said there are about 3,000 sea otters living off the coast of California. The species, which almost went extinct as a result of mass slaughtering by fur traders in the 1700s and 1800s, has rebounded, although it’s still considered “threatened” by federal standards.

Fujii said her state and federal partners are hoping to capture the otter this week.

“Due to the increasing public safety risk, a team from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Monterey Bay Aquarium trained in the capture and handling of sea otters has been deployed to attempt to capture and rehome her,” Ashley McConnell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement.

McConnell said that although hazing techniques had initially worked with the otter, they “were only temporarily effective.”

Where she will ultimately go is still unclear, Fujii said. But her first stop will be the aquarium, where it will get a checkup and be monitored for a bit.


A sea otter on a blue surfboard in the ocean.
A sea otter who has been harassing surfers in waters off Santa Cruz reclines on a surfboard recently.
(Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz)

For his part, Lee said that he’s unlikely to surf again and that he now has a mild case of lutraphobia — a fear of otters.

He said he’d picked up surfing while his wife and two kids — ages 3 and 4 — were in South Korea for the month. But the attack Sunday was so unnerving that he doesn’t really have a taste for it anymore.