The central California coast is known for its beautiful beaches, soaring cliffs, towering redwoods and world-class surf breaks. Lesser known – but wildly important to the health of the ocean – is the world’s entire population of southern (or California) sea otters. These dynamic animals are a keystone species without which the coastal ecosystem would collapse.
Sea otters along the central California coast can spend their entire lives in the ocean, from eating and sleeping to making and having babies. And for travellers, watching them can be endlessly entertaining: the charismatic creatures play and fight, crack open shellfish and spend hours fastidiously grooming. But only 100 years ago, this now beloved species was thought to be extinct.
All that stands between the otter and the cold Pacific waters is a thick coat of fur – an outer layer of guard hairs and an inner layer of short, thick underhairs. The densest of any animal, they can have up to one million hairs per square inch – about 10 times more than a human head – and it has to be kept impeccably clean for the animals to stay warm.
But it is this fine, velvety coat that got them into trouble. Starting in the mid 1700s, sea otters were hunted for their fur to make clothing, gloves and hats, and by the early 1900s, the 20,000-strong population off the California coast seemed to have been entirely wiped out.
But in 1938, a small raft, or group, of about 50 otters was spotted near Bixby Bridge in Big Sur. The rocky cliffs and secluded coves had prevented trappers and hunters from seeing or getting to them, and now, 75 years later, the approximately 2,800 southern sea otters are descendants of this one group. The threatened creatures can be found along a 200-mile stretch from Pigeon Point in the north and Gaviota State Park to the south, with the highest concentrations between Pismo Beach and the city of Santa Cruz.
Keep an eye out for the small furry creatures tucked into the kelp from any coastal hiking trail, such as in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel or Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz. And you can also sometimes spot a few from Fisherman’s Wharf in the town of Monterey or from the Santa Cruz Wharf. But for guaranteed otter spotting in the wild, head to Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. About halfway between Monterey and Santa Cruz in the town of Moss Landing, this is one of California’s largest estuaries.
A large raft of male otters, up to around 20, can usually be spotted grooming and napping near the mouth of the harbour or near the parking lot of Moss Landing State Beach, and can frequently be seen near the sea lions on the Moss Landing Visitor’s Dock. Look for them feeding on clams and abalone; to open the shells they pick up a rock or another clam, prop one on their chest, and bang the two against each other until the shell cracks open. Along with dolphins, they are the only marine mammals to use tools.
But sea otters are not the only creatures that live in the slough. Year-round, travellers are guaranteed sightings of loud sea lions, shy harbour seals, diving brown pelicans, hundreds of other birds, and the bottom feeding leopard shark. But April and May are an especially magical time to visit as this is when great blue herons and great egrets are nesting and harbour seals are giving birth to pups.
To get out on the water, organise a wildlife cruise with Elkhorn Slough Safari. Leaving from Moss Landing, Captain John takes you on a 27ft pontoon boat into the slough for two-hour tours – an ideal way to get stunning wildlife shots. If you want to get even closer, paddle out with Kayak Connection or Monterey Bay Kayaks, both with offices at Moss Landing Harbor. Rent a single or double kayak or a stand up paddleboard and either head out on your own or take a tour; both companies run guided two- to three-hour tours of the slough for all levels of paddlers. Kayak Connection even offers a tour for photographers where you take pictures while one of their staff members powers the double kayak.