The drive from Yosemite to Moss Landing was rather long and simple. It was mostly on the same road all the way until the exit where our campground was located. The KOA we stayed at was large but provided easy access to the highway with a couple of small shopping centers nearby. We also were not far from the Moss Landing State Beach, which made day trips out to see the wildlife extremely easy.
Once we had settled in, we took some time to go down to Moss Landing State Beach, and right from the start you could see a raft of sea otters floating about on their backs just by the entrance to Elkhorn Slough. They were absolutely fascinating, flipping about in the water, twirling with stunning grace and dexterity. They would move about easily with a small kick of their webbed feet as they floated on their backs. Some of them would come together and join hands, settling down to grab a quick nap and floating on the gentle tide. Seals were basking on the sand not far from a small marina, quietly sleeping for the most part, but a few were occasionally swimming about not far from the sea otters. They would stick their heads out for a look and make a wailing sound before diving back into the waters. This became our favorite place to haunt and watch the wildlife. Going down to the rocks at an outcrop, you could see thousands of tiny jellyfish bobbing about as the waves moved them. You could also sometimes find massive starfish clinging to the rocks, bigger than your hand, bright red and purple hues surrounded by a tiny army of jellyfish tendrils and pieces of loose kelp. That evening while watching the otters we met another photographer who was also out attempting to capture images of the playful creatures. He gave us a some information about local areas we should check out as well as discussing great places around the world for landscape and wildlife photography. He also informed us of a couple worthwhile tours in the area to increase the odds of seeing wildlife.
The next day after work, we decided to take an excursion along the coast just south of Monterey. The long, winding road over-looking the coastline of Big Sur is a wonderful day drive. It seems as though there are continuous magical views around each and every corner. Sometimes it’s lush pastoral hills rolling towards the ever moving sea, sometimes jagged and harrowing cliff faces with waves crashing against them. It’s a slow, meandering drive but it is varied enough to make it seem like it goes by quite quickly. We made our way down the coast in hopes of reaching McWay Falls while racing the sun looming on the horizon. We took a few stops along the way to admire the bridges that had been built where the land had been eroded away by water and time. Here and there you would spot recent evidence of the rock and mudslides that have caused so many problems of late.
When we finally arrived at McWay Falls, we were sad to see it had also been impacted by the weather. Although the waterfall cascading into the sea inside the little cove was incredible, it was far beyond our reach. Due to a series of landslides, the pathways and boardwalks that had been built to give people a complete view of the falls were blocked off by a fence. Streams of tape proclaiming “CAUTION” fluttered in the breeze and criss crossed over the area where the ground had heaved downwards toward the sea and began pushing the structure away from the base. The only paths that looked even remotely viable for a better vantage point, also looked extremely dangerous and likely would have caused further damage to the site. In the past, people have died trying to reach that picturesque beach with the waterfall, and we had no intention of meeting a similar fate. Footprints on the beach and a peace sign made of rock down below seemed to taunt us of the fact that others had been able to make the journey down, probably before the landslide, but we would not be so lucky.
When we had first pulled up to the view point, a young woman also out to shoot the sunset informed us that the trail we were looking for had been blocked off by fences for restoration areas. She had a rich accent of a Londoner, and we chatted about British humor and traveling. She informed me that she was a bit anxious, as she had hitch hiked her way to the location, and was not sure if she would be able to find a ride home. When we finished our photos she was still there and we gladly offered her a ride. It was getting dark, and we didn’t want her to be stranded along the road trying to find a ride back. As we rode along in the truck she told us a bit more about herself. She was a travel photographer based out of Singapore but had grown up in London, she didn’t like driving, so she hitch hiked almost exclusively. We chatted about places we had both been to, places we recommended, and throughly enjoyed her company.
I was a bit sad to say goodbye when we dropped her off at her hotel, but glad she had made it back safely and we had ample room in our truck to give her a ride back. It reminded me vividly of the couple we had picked up in Grand Staircase Escalante, so desperate for help they had considered riding on the roof of the Jeep we had rented just to get back to their car and out of the heat of the desert. We had squashed into the Jeep and the poor woman half sat in my lap as we jostled about in the cramped space. If we had had our truck back then, it would have been a much more comfortable experience for all parties, but I wouldn’t have turned them away either way. Before we began traveling I never really considered picking up a hitch hiker. Too many horror stories of people slitting your throat after asking for a ride, always being told never to pick someone up from the side of the road. Now that we travel more, I’ve come to appreciate that sometimes it’s ok to take a small risk to help people, particularly in cases where it could mean life or death for those stranded.
A couple days later we were able to arrange a tour of the Elkhorn Slough by boat. The boat was an open topped pontoon, bench covered, and flat, making it ideal for being able to see everything around. A phone call to the owners of Elkhorn Slough Safari and Brandon found out that they had a special seat in the very back for photographers. It gave him the ability to stand up whenever he wished to get shots from either side of the craft. The Captain was a good spirited man who loved to make jokes. Our two naturalists who were on board were knowledgable, and helped create fun activities for the children on board while imparting their information.
As soon as we set out we saw an abundance of sea lions stacked on top of one another like an unceremonious dog-pile upon anything they were able to reach that floated in the Harbor. Some were rather small, which we were told were mostly the females which comprised the harems of the males. The few males we did see however, were massive. Glittering sleek fur, rounded domed heads, hulking bodies, and loud cries that showed rows of large and sharp teeth. A scuffle would churn up the piles of sea lions every now and then and would raise into loud, guttural growls and barks before one of them was driven off their perch and into the water. Very quickly the rest would re-settle into their piles and sleep again. Some of them swam in the water of the harbor, not at all disturbed by the presence of the boat.
Leaving the narrower part of the harbor, the amount of sea lions petered off and a stench immediately smacked into your face from the blowing wind. On abandoned pylons of a once destroyed old pier, were nests holding Brandt’s cormorants. It was the middle of breeding season and dozens of nests holding females were to be found on the tops of every pole. We were told that the smell was because the nests primary building component was actually their poop. It made for a very fishy, pungent aroma. The males were finding materials by diving into the waters and pulling up chunks of kelp to present to their mates. If the female approved, she would take his building material and add it to the nest. The male would puff up his throat, a vibrant teal blue patch just under his beak, and show his pride at having brought back his prize for her and providing for their future offspring. Brandt’s cormorants are not the most consciences birds though, as a good majority of the material found in the nest is found to have been stolen from neighboring nests. The males seemed almost to pose for the camera as they puffed up and preened themselves readily and eagerly at their audience.
Once we had drifted past the pylons, the naturalists pointed out the group of sea otters we had been photographing and visiting over the past few days and gave us some more information about them. The raft we had been observing was apparently known as the Bachelor Raft, consisting almost entirely of males. As we passed under the bridge into Elkhorn Slough proper, we were greeted by the sight of female sea otters tending to tiny fuzzy balls of fur that were their pups. The pups we were told, are rather helpless until they get to be older. Their fur is so buoyant when they are young, that the only thing they can do is float, they can’t swim, or dive beneath the water, leaving them rather helpless without their mother. Their mother will drag them along trying to teach them to swim, how to tend their fur, grooming and caring for their fur till they can do it themselves, and feed them. More often than not the baby sits upon its mothers belly as she swims about on her back. When the mother leaves them to hunt, they make tiny wailing cries which we heard to a round sound of “Aww” and happy squeals from the onlookers. The naturalists said that because of this they call them “wailers” as they float about, sometimes wrapped up in kelp so mother can find them again. The males do not take part in raising the pups, instead they will actually ‘kidnap’ a pup, holding it ransom until mother returns, and only give the pup back if she will give up whatever food she has hunted for. The mothers we saw were never far from their pups, and would hold them tightly as we passed by. One mother was struggling with an older pup who had learned to swim and would rather play then pay attention to anything else, much to the mothers agitation from what we could see as she struggled to keep herself above water between her offsprings pounces.
As our journey took us further inland the shore became dotted with numerous seals. We learned that the reason there were such large seals was because it was time for the female seals to give birth, and so they would swim into the safer waters of Elkhorn Slough to give birth. We saw a few of the swollen mothers basking on the shore for a rest as well as a few that had already given birth. Their pups were small, fuzzy, wrinkled, and pudgy little things. We had the luck to see one suckling milk from their mother as we passed by. The mother watched us closely but made no move as it might disturb the feeding pup, and we kept a safe distance so as not to upset them.
Towards the end of the journey they had a few more activities for the kids, cookies, hot chocolate and coffee as we headed back towards the marina. The naturalists pointing out birds and a restoration project to help replace land that had been washed away by erosion to make sure the wildlife would continue to have a safe spot to breed and raise pups. Overall it was an extremely pleasant tour and I would highly recommend it to anyone who goes out that way looking for a chance to get up close shots of the wildlife.
Later in the week we will be participating in a whale tour before heading up to San Francisco and eventually to the Oregon coast.