Tuesday, February 18, 2020

There's no otter place quite like Elkhorn Slough

A relaxed resident of Elkhorn Slough studies passersby (Click on photos to enlarge)

 This might be my No. 1 choice for a paddling trip….

…during the “Other Season,” and it’s easy to make that case with generally mild winter weather, beautiful scenery and some of the best wildlife viewing anywhere in California. But on my most recent trip to Monterey County, I noticed that the entertainment worked both ways – while kayakers were watching sea otters and harbor seals in Elkhorn Slough, those critters were gawking at us too.
Two wild and crazy young guys
Which sort of complicates things, marine mammal protection-wise. Sea otters are classified as a threatened species and protected by law. Simply put, humans should always keep their distance, especially during the pupping season in late winter and early spring. (All photos with this blog post were taken with a telephoto lens.)

This paddler has an experienced sea dog  

But Elkhorn Slough – a shallow, oversized saltwater pool – may provide California's most intimate otter environment that is equally accessible to humans. And over time, it seems to me, otters and paddlers have largely adapted to each other’s presence.
Who's watching whom? It's sometimes difficult to be sure....
On a recent mild weekend, colorful kayaks of every size and kind dotted the slough, along with a couple of canoes and a paddleboard or two.

A white-haired paddler and her color-coordinated canine must be frequent visitors, as the dog knew just how to sit still in the cockpit. (With no barking at the wildlife, good dog!)

 And a trio of canoeists might not have realized it, but they were among the most interesting critters on the water that day.

It was apparent by the look on many kayaker faces that they had never been out on the slough before, or perhaps even taken up a paddle. Pure joy. One woman sported a beautiful smile and a stylish new splash jacket from the nearby kayak shop. She declared kayaking may become her favorite outdoor activity.  
Seals doing their best log imitation
And some otters seemed to enjoy an audience. While most moms and pups stayed in quiet areas and away from boat traffic, the adolescents popped up everywhere, often very close to boats and less than shy. Indeed, I 've seen a couple of incidents in the past where otters tried to climb onto kayaks. They may seem cuddly and cute, but up close, you’re more likely to notice their teeth and claws. Wild animals need to remain just that.
A power plant's inactive stacks can be seen from many points in Monterey Bay
Still, some interaction between paddlers and otters is inevitable, given the characteristics of Elkhorn Slough. It’s an easy, 30-minute drive north on Highway 1 from the tourist areas in Monterey. And impossible to miss, given the landmark steam stacks next door at Moss Landing, a bayside community with its own quirky charm.

It’s also easy to rent a kayak right at the beach launch from Monterey Bay Kayaks, a longtime vendor with a friendly, competent crew. And there’s amply public parking, though it’s not free.

The only downsides involve changeable paddling conditions, so keep time and tide on your side. (See interactive web site.) Assuming decent weather, it’s always best to launch at or near high tide in the morning, with light winds, and return by 1 p.m. or so, as the tide begins to ebb. Later in the day, winds off the ocean almost always pick up and a nasty chop may cover the slough with no cover from wind. Fine conditions for otters and seals, not so much for paddlers.

Changeable conditions: Less than 24 hour after the otter tour, bay winds hit 40mph (hear Asilomar)