Jul 21, 2023, 05:57AM

Free 841

The surfboard-stealing otter joins the orcas in an ocean creature rebellion.

Screenshot 2023 07 20 at 11.22.00 pm.png?ixlib=rails 2.1

I’ve traveled each year for sea glass festivals in lovely Santa Cruz California, and learned to surf in Ventura. Maybe because I have connections to the West Coast I’ve become obsessed with the story of 841, the otter that’s stolen surfboards, jumping aboard surfboards and going for joyrides with surfers, catching waves, and creating oceanic havoc.

The otter has achieved national and international media attention as the story is developing. The New York Times reported on the endangered nature of the species:      

California sea otters, also known as southern sea otters, are an endangered species found only along California’s central coast. Hundreds of thousands of these otters once roamed the state’s coastal waters, helping to keep the kelp forests healthy as they consumed sea urchins. But when colonists moved in on the West Coast, the species was hunted to near-extinction until a ban was put in place in 1911. Today, around 3,000 remain, many in areas frequented by kayakers, surfers and paddle boarders.

Over time, the otter has interacted increasingly with the local surfers and stolen multiple surfboards. Locals on social media have made fun of the fact that it’s soft-top boards that are getting destroyed. “The otter was shredding, caught a couple of nice waves,” one surfer told the Times. (You can practically hear the classic surfer accent in that quote).

California wildlife officials have been what many Californians would describe as downright gnarly, placing “bait surfboards” to try and catch 841, with no success as they increase their efforts to capture her “due to the public safety risk.” If and when they do, she’ll be returned to Monterey Bay Aquarium and then, since she’s been labeled an “aggressive otter,” “rehomed” to another aquarium to “live out her days.”

841 has a unique backstory. She was born in captivity and raised at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California not to form positive associations with humans upon release.” She shed her fear of humans and has enthusiastically interacted with them. Though she’s evaded capture so far, wildlife officials are warning that due to increased social media coverage by locals, if she bites a human, she’d be euthanized.

As the story has developed, two sides of a controversy have arisen. Some feel the otter should be removed from the ocean and taken to the aquarium in case it’s injured and because it poses a threat to surfers, and some feel it should be allowed to remain in the ocean that is its home. One surfer, dressing as an otter and carrying a “Free 841” sign on a surfboard, told news reporters

“I appreciate your eye for the beauty of our beloved Monterey Bay. I also surf, and I love being in the water more than anything. But whenever I am, I remember that I am a guest in other animals’ territory. If I am harmed by wildlife while swimming in the ocean, that is a risk I have knowingly taken.

I find it amusing that so many of us think nature needs our help. We both know that if otter 841 goes to the aquarium she’s probably never coming back. If we want to help this otter, we should stay away from her.”

As someone who’s a shitty surfer known as a “kook,” one day a few years ago, when heading out to surf there was a Great White Shark warning and my friend asked if I was still going to go out. “Into the ocean?” I said, “Where the sharks live?”

The ocean’s the home of the creatures who live there. I agree with otter surfer costume guy. If you’re playing in their playground, you take the risk. That day, I said if a Great White decided to come for me I hope it’s hungry and didn’t come to snack, do me a favor and take me out in one bite.

Same with the otter, given that it was born in captivity so it’s an odd set of circumstances. Still, otters live in the ocean, we’re the ones who fucked this up and now are living with the circumstances; I hope marine biologists will learn from it and Otter 841 will be in textbooks from now on. You can’t put invisibility ponchos on and pretend not to be a human, you’re still training an otter to be comfortable around humans. You can’t dump it in the ocean and expect it not to come looking for Scooby snacks and want to play, or even surf.


Register or Login to leave a comment