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
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.
Drifting in a kayak is one of the best ways
to spot a mother otter with her pup. While the males often hang out near the
harbour within easy view from shore, the females generally live further back in
the protected slough, where there is less boat traffic. A mother will usually
have one pup at a time, and since they can have them year round (though there
are often more born in spring) there is a good chance you will see one sleeping
or being groomed while perched on their mum’s chest. A new pup has such fluffy
fur that it is too buoyant to dive, so a mother will leave her pup bobbing at
the surface while she gets food for both of them.
The otters may look sweet and snuggly, but it
is important to remember that they are wild animals with teeth sharp enough to
rip into a crab. Trying to pet an otter, even a baby, could be dangerous, and getting
too close to them could result in a $25,000 fine under the Marine Mammal Protection Act
(a distance of 50ft to 100ft is recommended).
research and rescue
To get closer to the southern sea otters, head to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Overlooking
the bay along Cannery Row, made famous
by former resident writer John Steinbeck, the aquarium is a world-renowned
facility with a huge range of exhibits, from sharks to jellyfish to sea horses.
They also have one of the world’s first live kelp forest exhibits. Kelp is
intrinsically linked to the otters as this delicate ecosystem can only survive with
the help of these creatures. Otters eat sea urchins and snails, which eat kelp.
So by preventing a population explosion of kelp-eating species, they keep the forest
alive and well.
Visiting the aquarium means guaranteed,
up-close otter viewing without stressing out the animal. With double-paned
glass, the otters are not bothered by the constant stream of people, and with
two levels to the exhibit, visitors have the unique opportunity to watch the rambunctious
otters both at the surface and underwater, diving, swimming and playing
together. Check the feeding schedule when you get to the exhibit; this is a highlight
of any visit.
The otter portion of the aquarium was
refurbished in March 2013 to give the animals more space, and new video screens
have been installed for visitors to find out more about the species. Learn
about the five resident otters, how the sea otter contributes to the health of
the ocean and the work of the Sea Otter Research and
Conservation Program (SORAC).
SORAC researches the wild otter population
and provides care for abandoned or injured sea otters found in the wild. They
use Elkhorn Slough as a release location for rescued pups, giving them a
protected place to begin life again in the wild – look for the ones with
brightly coloured tags on their back flippers. Behind the scenes, surrogate
mothers teach orphaned pups how to groom, dive for food and handle tricky prey
like crabs (rip the legs off first to avoid getting pinched). The goal is to be
able to release the pups back into the wild to grow up and have pups of their