Friday, October 14, 2011

Kayaker falling for Monterey once again

On more than one occasion, moi has confessed a love jones for Monterey Bay and Elkhorn Slough. Without going all ga-ga again, let’s just note that October and November can be the finest season for kayaking and wildlife viewing in these parts. And here are some photos to prove it.

Sea otter kicks back amid the kelp, just off Cannery Row  
How to make such a great paddle even better? Enjoy the scene with good folks who haven’t kayaked here before. NorCal Yak pals Lisa and Frank joined me last weekend on a paddler pilgrimage to the slough and the bay. Hoo-boy, was it inspiring to share in their delightful

reactions. And they were hardly nature neophytes, having recently returned from a kayaking trip to Vancouver Island, where they ogled orcas. 

But this place was really special, they agreed. All three of us were agog at the passing parade of sea otters, seals and sea lions, egrets, rodent-wacking hawks as well as herons, pelicans, and other usual suspects of Monterey Bay marine life.  I tried to be nonchalant and failed miserably, babbling about the perfect conditions on Elkhorn Slough – no fog even early in day, light winds, highs in the mid-70s.
On Elkhorn Slough, a double-tagged sea otter pays little heed as Frank paddles past
Nearing a flood tide at mid-morning, the slough was as smooth as glass – except for the unnerving ka-pow of kamikaze pelicans dive-bombing for fish, sometimes close to our kayaks. It seemed as if the impact of a 30-to-40-foot headlong crash should have broken their skinny necks, but time and time again baggy beaks came up gulping hapless finny prey.

Sleeping in a kelp bed is asking for bad hair day  
And to my completely unscientific mind, the slough was chock full o' sea otters, more so than at other times of year. Plus it looked like more of them were sporting tags, sometimes two tags, this year. That led me to contact the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which runs a tagging research program to explore why the overall Southern otter population remains so fragile.

Aquarium Communications Director Ken Peterson confirmed my notion. The part about my unscientific mind, not the otter populace.  Slough numbers have remained fairly high for several years, he said, adding that almost all in the harbor area are males while females with young tend to live farther upstream. 

As for the tags? “We release surrogate-reared pups (with flipper tags) in the slough and many have remained in the area. Some sea otters tagged during field studies in central California have meandered to the slough for periods of time, so not every tagged otter is one that we released,” said Peterson.  “Any otter with a single tag has lost one of its tags. We place a tag on each foot – the colors and positions of the tags often represent the gender of the otter and the region where it was captured for a research project.”

Oh, sort of like body piercing, but useful.

Hanging out with the pelican air force in Elkhorn Slough
But let's move on to harbor seals, more specifically juvenile pinnipeds. As in the human species, restless youth travel in packs, show off shamelessly, and generally raise a rukus for their own amusement. So we frequently found the “juvies” trailing our boats, dipping and diving around us in total disregard for the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act’s safe distance guidelines. Of course, seals follow rules the same way that cats do. And it's difficult for paddlers to take evasive action when a seal pops up from under your kayak and begins nibbling at your paddle blade, as Frank would discover on this trip. Those pinniped punks, rebels without a clue.

Egret takes flight on foggy bay (Photo courtesy Lisa Quagliaroli)
When we hit the bay the next day, it was more typically Monterey, which is to say a foggy dull gray. Low clouds persisted until almost noon, when the sky dramatically cleared over Cannery Row, lighting up the water in sparkling. turquoise hues. Sea otters bobbed alongside houseboats and yachts, all of them perfectly at home near the commercial wharf.

Seeking the source of Steinbeck's famous stink
Pals Frank and Lisa loved the view but nearly gagged on the odor. They knew the works of author John Steinbeck but had never fully appreciated his description of Cannery Row as “a poem, a stink...” with emphasis on the stink. Though not so offensive to a writer comforted by the thought that even great literature may glorify a certain fishy smell.

Seals in shallows, or were they just flippering us off? 

Surfer catches last rays and last wave before sunset off Asilomar Beach near Monterey
Finally, the last thing that made a Monterey Bay autum day special was indeed the last thing -- a glorious sunset with more sun and less fog to obscure the horizon. A final, seductive wink before the bay turned in for the night.


It's very important to time your Elkhorn Slough paddle with the flood tide. Check the online tide table and look for the "Kirby Park, Elkhorn Slough" data entry. For reference, our trip was at a tide of just under 4 feet, and at that level, we were unable to fully navigate the marshes that wind around the north side of the slough. A week later, some friends reported that they had easily paddled over the marshes nearly the entire length of the slough. Their flood tide was at 5 feet.  
Photos and text © Glenn Brank 2011