Elkhorn Slough Safari

By Clark Tate

Rubbing his chubby cheeks and yawning the sea otter reveals a mouth full of chompers that make short work of crab legs (more on that later) while doing nothing to dent his overwhelming adorability. He’s so close through the amplified lens of my binoculars that it seems like I’m holding him at arm’s length by his furry little armpits. Water drips from his teddy bear-round face while his eyes calmly blink a mild curiosity at us. Five minutes into the Elkhorn Slough safari and the drive to Moss Landing is already well worth the reward.

I’ve come down to the Elkhorn Slough Safari as part of the Monterey Bay Birding Festival, along with about half of my fellow tourists. Many of the other participants have no idea that the birding festival is taking place, but that doesn’t make a darn bit of difference to the birds; they are equal opportunity showoffs.

Our 10:30 a.m. start is timed to catch the widest array of wildlife, from marine mammals to migrating birds, lounging about Elkhorn Slough. It’s a nice, relaxed beginning to a Sunday and the group vibe reflects the schedule; calm, content, like a bunch of well-loved grandmas at a garden party. The easygoing atmosphere catches an energy burst just as our pontoon boat – a tall-and-steady special designed by our captain, Yohn Gideon – eases off the dock. Boom. There it is, a great egret, fishing from the back of the boat beside us. Wait, it started already? A mad rush to hone the binocs, a collective grin, and we are on our way.

The next few hundred yards brings docks broken down beneath piles of hulking male sea lions. Gideon informs us that all the ladies are chilling in the Channel Islands at the moment. No wonder the pile of pinnipeds seem so irritable, and smelly. Our attentions are quickly directed to sunning cormorants, wings spread wide. All three California species are represented: Brandt’s with their turquoise(!) eyes and powdery-blue throat pouches, pelagics with their subtle, punk-rock streaks of glossy green, and the comparatively underwhelming double crested. (To be fair, Google images implies that they will be a lot more interesting come breeding season.)

Drifting alongside the rocky jetty we marvel at a great blue heron hunkering down in grumpy-old-man posture, brown pelicans resplendent with heads topped in spring-yellow breeding plumage, and lots and lots of elegant terns! Turning the boat to head back towards the slough (we haven’t even ventured out of the harbor proper yet) we spy them, the sea otters. I have my moment with the aforementioned heartbreaker and 36 or so of his closest friends. They are floating on their backs or rolling on their bellies in a true “raft,” the technical term for a group of the charming furballs.

As we head towards the bridge and the actual slough, Gideon and our naturalist guide, Danny Johnson, “check our clock out,” making us point to nine and three. Then commence the rapid-fire sightings: “Otter at around 2 o’clock. Do you see that long-billed curlew at 10 o’clock? Maybe 10:30? Okay, 11.” We spot willets, tiny sand pipers, snowy egrets, marbled godwits, American avocets, a black-bellied plover, and gaggles of lazing harbor seals. These two are very enthusiastic, teaching us all sorts of fun and interesting facts. Johnson loves terns as they propose to their mates – using a fish in lieu of a ring – and then go for a joyous honeymoon “fish flight.” Mother otters wrap their babies in eel grass while they hunt with males occasionally kidnapping the babes for a snack ransom. It’s a wild kingdom out here.

Read Monterey Bay Birding Festival: A Beginner's Bird Walk
Read Surprise! Sea Otters Save Eelgrass

We pause and turn off the motor to listen to an otter, 10 feet away, munch on her freshly plucked crab leg lunch; crunch, crunch, crunch.

It’s thrilling, and after an hour or so, a little exhausting. Yohn, who’s been doing this for 19 years, and Johnson are right on cue. Just as we approach information overload they idle the motor, take pictures for us, and offer coffee and cookies for the slow, quiet ride back. We sit back, soaking in time spent with the birds we now know by name.

As we approach the bridge, and the end of our tour, a bonus round of spectacular appears. The elegant terns have flown the roost. An architect’s dream bird, they glide on minimalist-style wings in a narrow, shifting river over our right shoulders, seeming to span the sky. Yohn: “By far the most I’ve ever seen.”

“Usually sightseeing is like looking at a magazine, everything is 2-D; but when you get a little more involved it comes alive,” commented Craig Muir, a visitor from Los Angeles. And isn’t that what a safari is all about?

To go on a safari of your own contact Elkhorn Slough Safari’s website or call 831-633-5555. Make sure to reserve a spot well in advance as the popular tour often sells out.