California’s Surfboard-Stealing Sea Otter Has Given Birth to a Pup

Otter 841 made headlines for her “unusual” behavior this summer, which biologists now say could’ve been related to pregnancy hormones

a mother and baby otter on their backs float closely in the water
After making headlines this summer for "stealing" surfboards in Santa Cruz, the California sea otter known as 841 has been spotted with a new pup. Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz

This summer, a sea otter named 841 garnered international attention for stealing surfboards and fearlessly approaching humans off the coast Santa Cruz, California. And though many onlookers found the 5-year-old female’s behaviors cute, wildlife officials began to worry about public safety. They announced in July that they planned to capture and rehome her, but she has evaded their efforts for months.

Now, though, the 841 saga has a new twist: Last week, she was spotted with a pup. The otter was likely pregnant this summer, which could help explain her “unusual behavior,” according to a statement from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

“Hormonal surges related to pregnancy have been known to cause aggressive behavior in female southern sea otters,” per the statement.

Because the sea otter is a new mom, wildlife officials say they no longer plan to try to capture her—or her pup. Instead, biologists will “continue to monitor her and assess her behavior,” according to the USFWS.

a small otter and a large otter floating on their backs near each other
Wildlife officials no longer have plans to capture 841 or her new pup. Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz

They also continue to urge members of the public to give 841—and all marine mammals—plenty of space so they can thrive.

Sea otters are particularly vulnerable while raising their pups. On top of that extra responsibility, they must find and eat up to 30 percent of their body mass every day just to survive. And since otters don’t have a thick layer of blubber, like whales and seals do, most of their calories go toward staying warm. To conserve energy, they often float on their backs when they’re not foraging for food.

“If people get too close and cause disturbance, the otters are wasting energy when swimming away,” says Jess Fujii, sea otter program manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to the Mercury News’ Ethan Baron. “When this happens repeatedly, it can lead to the mom or pup not surviving. It’s incredibly important for people to stay away from all sea otters, and especially those with pups.”

Approaching sea otters is also illegal. The creatures are protected by California state laws, as well as the federal Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Violators could face up to a year in jail time and up to a $100,000 fine.

Female sea otters typically give birth for the first time when they reach age 4 or 5. Their pregnancies last roughly four or five months. And while most California otters give birth between January and March, they can reproduce all year round.

a mother and baby otter with a gull
Otter 841 and her pup float with a gull. Mark Woodward / Native Santa Cruz

Otter 841 was born in captivity and raised at the Monterey Bay Aquarium before being released to the wild in 2020. This is her third time with a pup, reports the Los Angeles Times’ Susanne Rust. Though the first survived, her second did not make it.

It’s not clear exactly when 841 may have given birth, but she was spotted swimming solo as recently as October 20, according to Mark Woodward, a photographer who has been watching the famous otter for months, per the Los Angeles Times.

When Woodward took his camera out on Tuesday afternoon last week, however, he spotted a fluffy little pup next to 841. The mother and baby were sharing a meal of crab. He’s coined the duo “841+1.”

“I felt myself smiling and almost started crying, I kind of feel like a proud papa,” he posted on his social media account, Native Santa Cruz. “Congratulations 841, everyone in the 831 is very happy for you.”

Since then, his social media has been “blowing up,” he tells SFGate’s Amanda Bartlett. Many commenters expressed joy at what, for now, appears to be a happy resolution to 841’s story.

“I’ve been thinking this whole time she was pregnant,” one person wrote on his post. “It makes my heart soar to see she evaded captivity … and is able to raise her babies where they belong, wild and in the bay!”

Southern sea otters, also known as California sea otters, were nearly hunted to extinction. Off the coast of California, their numbers had dwindled to as few as 50 individuals in the early 1900s. While they’ve been making a comeback since then, their population has been declining in recent years, possibly because of disease, algal blooms or shark bites.

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