August 19, 2021

Photo Essay: A Southern Sea Otter Safari in Monterey Bay

I don't remember how long ago it was when someone first told me about Elkhorn Slough as a destination for sea otters—only that it was sometime before I made it to the otter viewing spot in Morro Bay in 2019. 

Leave it to me to make smalltalk about otters with strangers. 

But when I was mapping out my trip to San Jose last weekend, I noticed that if I took the long way—hugging the coast instead of staying on an inland freeway—I could convince myself that this otter destination in Monterey Bay was on the way home.
The first sign that there might be an otter population nearby was literally a sign painted on the asphalt of Jetty Road, just after exiting Highway 1. It read: SLOW OTTER XING. 

I didn't see any sea otters ambling across the bridge there, which connects the "Paul's Island" section of Moss Landing State Wildlife Area with the peninsula of Moss Landing State Beach—all part of the overall Elkhorn Slough area. 

So, I kept going, passing some birdwatchers who were perched near a group of beached harbor seals...

...some resting comfortably and others flopping across the sandy terrain of this side channel of the Slough. 

I kept driving, eventually parking my car at the Moss Landing Viewing Point and walking down to a protected otter "resting area"—but finding no otters there. 

It seemed strange—because there are reportedly over 100 southern sea otters in this estuary habitat. It's the densest population you'll find of them anywhere along the coast in California. So where were they? 

I kept thinking that maybe I'd gone to the wrong spot, despite having pretty thoroughly researched otter sightings there since I'd first heard about the place. But I kept walking, keeping my eyes peeled as I passed the breakwater. 

And then, from behind a line of rocks, I saw what I thought at first was a dark, wet rock covered in kelp. Except, the longer I looked, the more I realized the rock was floating. And, upon even closer examination—furry. 

I'd found an otter who'd wrapped himself in seaweed—so he (I assume he) could take a nap without floating away!

Upon my arrival, even though I was very quiet, he began waking up. 

He stayed wrapped in his kelp blanket... he could do the other things otters do while floating...

...which is groom themselves. 

And as the waters moved around a little bit (I don't know whether the tide was coming in or going out, but the water's always moving in an estuary), lo and behold—he had a friend!

The second sea otter was just as sleepy as the first, with more of a teddy bear face...

...his eyes closed, and front paws clasped together across his (I assume his) chest as though in prayer. 

And then it was time for him to groom himself, too...

...though he was only ready to open just one eye.

I tried to keep my squealing to myself. I just kept whispering, "Hi guys!" And I couldn't imagine why the other Moss Landing visitors were preoccupied with fishing or walking down to the state beach—rather than basking in the cuteness that floated before me. 

But at least that meant I got the otters to myself. 

Just two of them, two out of 100...

...but they were great ones, with lots of personality.

They gave me just enough time to take a million and one adorable shots of them...

...and then they moseyed away, diving down under the water's surface (presumably to get a snack). 

Visit Avoiding Regret on Facebook to view cell phone video footage of the otters during my visit. 

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