Monday, May 9, 2011

Kayakers, give those moms a break

MONTEREY – It’s a magical season in and around Monterey Bay. In addition to fog-free weather, there’s another sign of spring – newborn seals and sea otters. As kayakers, we enjoy some of the best vantage points to watch marine moms rear their young. And we have a responsibility not to disturb them.

On a recent weekend trip to Elkhorn Slough and Monterey Bay, our paddling group saw many seals and sea otters with their young. Even on a blustery Saturday afternoon, dozens of paddlers paraded up the slough to catch a view of mother seals and their pups on the mud flats and in the shallows (below). sea kayak Monterey Northern California kayaking
Photo courtesy of Rose McNulty
It’s a great time to enjoy nature, but marine experts warn that it’s also crucial not to disrupt these animals when they feel particularly vulnerable. “When you see a seal and its pup lying on the beach, it’s important to remember that they are conserving their energy,” said Ken Peterson, a spokesperson for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “It’s the same with sea otters floating on the surface. If you disturb them, you may compromise their ability to survive.”

It’s also a violation of federal law to disturb the wildlife in Monterey Bay, a national marine sanctuary.

Peterson acknowledges that seals, otters, and sea lions – with their expressive eyes, long whiskers and cute faces – naturally attract people. “Sea lions are gregarious and social, and sea otters can be quite curious,” he said, but they are still wild animals. (Sea otter and pup resting in slough, below.)

Since otters are relatively small, some paddlers might find it cute when they approach a boat, but as members of the weasel family, they possess sharp claws and teeth. There have been reports of injuries to kayakers on occasion when otters felt threatened.

The best way to avoid a problem – for yourself or an animal – is to always keep a respectful distance. While the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act specifies 100 feet, the best indicator is animal behavior that may involve even more distance, said Peterson, if the animal reacts to your presence.

“Seals are naturally shy, and you can see when a seal is nervous,” he said. On the other hand, a sea lion may actually approach you with no fear. In that case, try to avoid contact calmly, said Peterson. (Sea lions at play in Monterey Bay harbor, below.)

Paddlers should opt for binoculars if they want a closer view. There’s also the advantage of digital cameras. None of the photos with this post were taken at close range. Even today’s modest point-and-shoot cameras have resolution and telephoto capabilities that make it unnecessary to get up close to a subject.

Check on ocean etiquette in a national marine sanctuary. And refer to these posts on kayaking in Monterey Bay and Elkhorn Slough.

© 2011 Glenn Brank