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  • Radford Bean

Exploring Monterey Bay and its Marine Life

I know, Monterey Bay isn't exactly in Oregon. More precisely, it's on California's central coast. But hey, don't we as paddlers want to explore new areas, and while Oregon has some truly remarkable places to paddle, there are other areas within a day's drive of Oregon that deserve to be paddled, and many of us paddlers from Oregon do so. We'll make a drive up to the San Juan Islands or take a trip down to San Francisco Bay or Monterey just so we can witness marine life we can't experience in Oregon. Oregon lacks many of the beautiful islands one will encounter in the Puget Sound or the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the last population of sea otters disappeared from the Oregon coast a century ago, so we have to look elsewhere for these points of interest. Fortunately, we don't have to travel far.

With a desire to view sea otters and breaching humpback whales in their native habitats, my friend, Stephanie Cowles, and I headed south for three days of paddling in Monterey Bay and the Elkhorn Slough. The drive to Capitola, California, where we'd be camping for four nights took us about 11 hours, though we broke the drive into two days.

Upon arriving in Santa Cruz, we stopped briefly at Kayak Connection to talk to them about what to expect as far as paddling conditions and the opportunities to see whales. We were also scheduled to take a sea otter tour with them during our stay. The weather was warm and pleasant, and we looked forward to three days of paddling in the bay.

Saturday was our first day out on the water. In Moss Landing we met up with Dave of Venture Quest who would be leading our whale watching tour. The news we got from him that the whales were not as plentiful as in previous years and were staying farther offshore dampened our spirits somewhat, but we hoped for the best. There would be plenty of opportunities to see other wildlife we don't normally see in Oregon. We set out with other participants and headed two miles off the California coast.

On our way out of Moss Landing Harbor, we passed a raft of male sea otters and a group of harbor seals. Gentle swells greeted us as we passed the jetty and entered the bay. Terns soared overhead and fish occasionally jumped nearby, but there were no signs of whale spouts. Dave listened to the radio tuned to the frequency all the whale watching charters monitor. Most whale sightings were just too far offshore for us to paddle to in the allotted time. Dave spotted a tunicate floating in the water, which he passed around for us to see. Sadly during our time out in the bay, we never spotted any whales or dolphins or sharks. In previous years the whales would come so close to shore that people standing on the beach could view them without the aid of binoculars. Still it was fun being so far out from shore and just bobbing gently in the swells.

Having no luck spotting any whales, Dave decided to take us back to Moss Landing to explore the Elkhorn Slough and the wildlife that inhabits it. There in the slough I spotted many species of birds I don’t commonly see at the Oregon coast, shorebirds like marbled godwits, short-billed dowitchers, curlews, whimbrels, American avocets, and elegant terns. And while I spotted white pelicans, which I have seen on Sauvies Island and on the Upper Klamath Canoe Trail, I also saw brown pelicans. I also spotted three species of cormorants: pelagic, Brandt’s, and double-crested.

Locating the entrance to Moss Landing is very easy, The two stacks of the power station serve as a perfect landmark.

The following day after spending several hours visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium and learning about the threats to sea otters, Stephanie and I launched our boats at Breakwater Cove into Monterey Harbor for a paddle in the kelp beds offshore from the aquarium. Periodically we encountered a sea otter tucked into the floating kelp fronds. Stephanie and I also did a little exploring of the harbor, checking out the many sailboats moored there.

One particular California sea lion at Breakwater Cove seemed to take pleasure in splashing me as I paddled past a rock jetty crowded with the boisterous creatures. And the smell, whew!

I encountered a lone sea otter swimming among the anchored sailboats. He glanced over at me to see what I was up to—photographing a brown pelican perched on a rock in the harbor—before swimming on.

The day had started out nice and sunny, but while Stephanie and I were out paddling, the fog started to roll in, signaling a change in the next day’s weather. While Stephanie decided to head in, I chose to stay out a little longer to explore Fisherman’s Wharf.

Due to an incoming tide and two-foot swells from the bay washing up onto the cement boat ramp at Breakwater Cove, I decided to do a beach landing on the backside of the jetty at Breakwater Cove rather than risk damaging my composite kayak on the ramp. A beach landing in Monterey is far easier than landing on Oregon beaches because I didn’t have to deal with any breaking waves. My friends that like to kayak surf, however, would probably find the surf conditions in Monterey rather boring.

By the time we made it back to our campsite at Capitola, the whole area was socked in by fog. Santa Cruz, just to the north, was having a celebration and shooting off fireworks. We could hear them and see the fog change colors, but the actual fireworks patterns were obscured.

The nice weather of the previous three days gave way to a cloudy and cool day. Stephanie and I had decided on visiting Monterey Bay in early October because that time of year usually sees the nicest weather. This was to be the day that Stephanie and I had a personal tour through Kayak Connections of the Elkhorn Slough. With the sky being overcast, it was going to be extremely difficult to see leopard sharks and rays that inhabit the slough. I did see many more sea otters than two days earlier, and the highlight had to be watching as a mother otter drifted past us cuddling her youngster on her belly. Our guide did manage to spot a nudibranch in the eel grass and showed it to us, and we took our time paddling around a brown pelican rookery so as not to disturb the birds. It was during this tour that I happened to spot and photograph two playful otters wrestling with one another. Our four-hour tour eventually had to come to an end, so we headed back to beach so I could load up my boat and Stephanie could return the boat she had rented.

You can view a ten-minute video on YouTube of my paddle trip in the Elkhorn Slough.

The weather improved briefly in the afternoon, so after an hour of window shopping in Capitola and grabbing an early dinner, we headed to Santa Cruz to do a late afternoon paddle. I was hoping to see a dolphin, which Stephanie had spotted two days earlier while hanging out on the Santa Cruz Pier while I rode the roller coaster on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.

What sunshine Stephanie and I had encountered while in Capitola had pretty much vanished by the time we finished dinner and made the short drive up to the small boat harbor in Santa Cruz. While paying a visit to the harbormaster’s office to pay the $15 launch fee, the harbormaster informed me that the area was expecting large swells and gusty winds. She couldn’t give me an exact time, and the conditions at the moment looked fine, so I convinced Stephanie it would be safe for us to journey out past the jetty into Monterey Bay for a short paddle. It turned out the water conditions were just fine. We had minor swells and no wind, so we paddled to the Santa Cruz Pier.

We didn’t observe any dolphins, but we did spot a solitary sea otter hanging around at the base of the pier feeding on shellfish. The lower beams of the pier were crowded with sea lions, and I wondered how they had managed to launch themselves onto the beams that appeared to be at least five feet above the water. Perhaps they got up onto the beams during a high tide, or perhaps they’re just tremendous leapers, which would have been an amazing feat for such a large and heavy animal.

I paddled close to shore to snap a couple of photos of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. My photos taken, we paddled back to the small boat harbor and spent some time exploring the many boats in the harbor. There were some really beautiful yachts and sailboats. The light was beginning to fade fast—which it does this time of year—so we decided it was time to return to the boat launch.

All good things have to come to an end, and this would be our last night in Monterey Bay. There was some sadness in my heart. Though Stephanie and I didn’t get to see all the wildlife we had hoped to see and had planned for 10 months to see, we both agreed the trip was a blast. I thoroughly enjoyed spending four days in Monterey Bay paddling with Stephanie and see such diverse wildlife. The trip was so much fun that I committed to return to Monterey Bay every three to four years, hopefully with Stephanie again, to do more paddling in the region. Maybe next time I’ll get a chance to observe a humpback whale breach near me.

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