Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sea otters, paddlers, PBS find a special environment

Sea otter dines casually in the surf off a Monterey beach
One of the best things about paddling is that it brings us closer to nature. Out on the water, we become part of our surroundings in a quiet, unobtrusive and personal way. Kayaks are an ideal vehicle for exploring a wild world that can’t be fully appreciated from shore. 

So it was with my very first kayaking experience six years ago, on Monterey Bay. Just floundering around in a rental sit-on-top when a sea otter nonchalantly paddled right by. Thick fur, expressive eyes, whiskers, playful personality – the whole animal kingdom package.

Body surfing otter makes it look easy, even in rough conditions

Otter times waves perfectly, keeps snacking even as breakers crash, below

Instantly, I was hooked on kayaking and nature-watching with a paddle in hand. Monterey Bay was the perfect spot at that moment for that otter and for me.

The Public Broadcasting Service brings otters and their California enivornment into perspective with an episode in its “Nature” series, Saving Otter 501.

It’s a one-hour documentary on the extraordinary efforts by
the Monterey Aquarium to preserve the sea otter population unique to this area. And it’s a must-view for any kayaker who’s paddled here or plans to go otter-watching in the future.
The program was originally shown almost a year ago, but re-runs still air, so check your local PBS listings or watch online. It will remind you just how lucky we are to share the Northern California coastline with sea otters as our fellow paddlers.

Watch the PBS show to learn how otters protect kelp
Even before I saw this "Nature" segment, I knew that otters live a tenuous existence. Just a few weeks ago, I was looking forward to a kayak surfing lesson near Moss Landing – an otter hotspot. In search of inspiration for my lesson, I went to a beach to see some surfers. Instead, I wound up watching an otter just offshore for more than hour.
Some waves topped four feet, and conditions were choppy to say the least. Yet this critter was absolutely comfortable amid foamy chaos. It calmly ate several helpings of crab in conditions where I surely would have lost my lunch. That realization came the next day as rough conditions cancelled the surf lesson. But not before I took a brief pounding in the waves, and came to respect otter paddling skills all the more.

Otter paradise just off Cannery Row in Monterey
It left more time to explore, for the umpteenth time, rural Elkhorn Slough and the waters just off Cannery Row near downtown Monterey. If I ever get bored with these paddling places, just hook and net me, stuff me, and hang me on the wall.

Otters inhabit both the rural slough and a touristy stretch off Cannery Row with equal ease. The PBS show noted that they hold little fear of human habitat when it suits their purpose. In one scene, an otter mom dragged its pup onto a moored powerboat in Moss Landing while she went foraging in the slough.
All diners get a bay view, but some pay a lot more for it 

Out on Monterey Bay, otters lounge just a few yards beyond the decks of pricey restaurants. Paddlers get a perfect view of two sets of diners – one tucked under white cloth napkins, the other under kelp fronds – who enjoy essentially the same seafood menu and view, though the group on the water never needs to make reservations for dinner.
Does aquarium support otters, or vice versa?

Farther along the Row looms the huge aquarium complex. Saving Otter 501 makes a case that California otters may not have survived without the aquarium rescue program. I wonder if the reverse also isn't true. Aquarium crowds pay big bucks for an otter headliner show – a tankful of furry clowns separated from human eyes and noses by a few inches of glass.
Yet it hardly compares to watching otters in their true element on the bay. Did I mention just how lucky we kayakers are? 
~ ~ ~

With special access to wildlife comes a responsibility for restraint and respect. As female otters care for their pups through the summer, they live in a precarious state. Saving Otter 501 explains how otters must expend tremendous energy to survive in a marine environment while raising their young. Any disruption may have deadly consequences for females and young. So keep your distance when on the water. And if an otter approaches you, as some friendly ones do? However cute they seem, better to back-paddle if possible. All photos in this blog post were taken from a distance with a telephoto lens.

© Glenn Brank 2014