A sea otter startled onlookers recently when it surfaced off the coast of California with a small horn shark clasped in its forearms. Photographers Don Henderson and Alice Cahill captured the odd event, which appeared to include "some nibbling", though it did not end with the otter successfully finishing off its sharky meal. 

Non-profit organisation Sea Otter Savvy shared the images on Twitter where they quickly generated some interest. "I chose to believe this is photographic evidence of truly star-crossed lovers," wrote one commenter. Shakespearean musings aside, it's more likely that the otter hauled the shark to the surface hoping to make a meal of the unusual predator only to realise that it had overcommitted.

Sea otters regularly comb the ocean floor for prey, which can include everything from snails, sea urchins and kelp, to clams and sometimes fish. "If you watch sea otters long enough you will see a range of sea life brought to the surface," Sea Otter savvy explained on Twitter. "While fish are not unusual prey for more northern sea otters (Alaska & Russia), they are quite uncommon in California." 

Horn sharks are even more uncommon: "To my knowledge … this is the first documented horn shark capture by a sea otter," Michael Harris, of the California department of fish and wildlife, told For the Win Outdoors. "There are reports of sea otters capturing skates and rays, but this is the first report of a shark. Sea otters will feed on fish, but it’s a very rare observation in California."

So it seems most likely that the horn shark – a solitary, elusive predator that emerges mostly at night to hunt crustaceans and mollusks – was minding its own business when the otter snatched it and hoisted it to the surface, possibly in an over-ambitious attempt at securing a big meal. Some social media users wondered if the behaviour could be playful, but the exact nature of the interaction remains a bit of a mystery. Perhaps there's something to that star-crossed lovers theory ...

Header image: Judy Gallagher