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Monday, August 6, 2012

Where to see Sea Otters in Northern California

Want to see sea otters in the wild? Recently I did some online research and learned that the best place to see them close up is right off HWY 1 in Moss Landing, CA.

If you've ever driven south on HWY 1 to Monterey, Carmel, or Castroville (where I attended the Artichoke Festival a few months ago), you've passed Moss Landing along the way. It's the place with the big power plant to your left and the Pot Stop, boat harbor, the Whole Enchilada restaurant and some farm stands to your right.

Using the guide in the article I linked to above I turned off on the Moss Landing Road exit but there wasn't a single sea otter to be found along the side of the road.

I traveled just a bit further down the road though and found the Shakespeare Society of America, and a variety of shops.

I also found an art gallery. Make that dos art galleries! La Galeria is a gem tucked away behind a restaurant. Currently it features the work of two artists. Dos Galeria is a collective located across the street. The woman at La Galeria couldn't have been friendlier. She was great and explained how the owner of the galleries is also the co-owner of the restaurant out front, the Haute Enchilada Cafe. She said it was cute and eclectic and that his wife was the one responsible for the fun decor. It was lunchtime so I thought I'd head over and try out their food.

The restaurant is in a large building that looks like a big house with lots of seating and sculptures in the front yard. The interior is cute, very colorful, and as promised, eclectic. I was quickly seated and perused the menu deciding I'd order the Beer Battered Fresh Local Brussels Sprouts and a vegetarian soft taco with black beans and rice.

Then I waited to place my order. Sadly, I waited so long I finally left. The restaurant wasn't overly busy and the waitress walked back and forth past my table over and over again but never stopped to take my order. It was as if she'd forgotten me in plain sight. I noticed that the other people who had placed their orders were all still waiting for their food over ten minutes later and I had sea otters to locate so rather than flag her down, I simply moved on.

I will return though because I really want to try those brussels sprouts.

Just down the highway is a shop I'd always wanted to stop at. The Pot Stop at Little Baja is a large, outdoor yard full of ceramic pots, planters and fountains. I wandered through the entire grounds looking for a pot for our front porch. There were two things I had to consider: I want a pot that's attractive, but not so great someone will steal it. There were so many I couldn't choose. I think I'll have to go back someday after talking to my sister who is going to help me re-landscape our front yard.

Just across the parking lot from the Pot Stop, and over looking the water, was the Sea Harvest restaurant. I hopped online to read some reviews. They looked good and I was still hungry so I figured it would have to do. As I approached the front door I noticed the sound of barking sea lions. I passed the entryway on the left and headed behind the restaurant where I found a long deck and a pier.

And this. . .  Piles of California Sea Lions.

And I mean piles of them! There was easily more than a hundred of them basking in the afternoon sun.

The pier was four sections long and kayakers could paddle up right alongside it if they wanted to. Wow. Imagine a picture taken from water level. The sea lions would look a lot bigger than from so far away.

That's about when I looked down and spotted a large jellyfish swimming beneath me. The hood was transparent with only the slightest white coloration to it. The tendrils were a bright orange, full and ruffled.

After doing some research later at home I learned that this was an Egg Yolk Jellyfish. The name made sense for obvious reasons. I absolutely love seeing jellyfish in the wild! I'd seen some earlier the same day over in Monterey including a Moon Jellyfish.

And then, way across the water I saw them. The Moss Landing Sea Otters. The reason I could tell they were Sea Otters was because seals and sea lions look different in the water. Typically you'll only see a seal's head and maybe one flipper out of the water at a time. With otters you see their head, and their tails so an otter has two parts, that are about the same height, floating above the water line. They were so far away this was the best shot I could get even with my 300mm zoom lens.

Hungry, I headed into the restaurant for a late lunch. The interior was colorful, the service efficient and the food was good. I tried the Salmon Bisque soup and the Grilled Salmon entree with a lemon caper sauce over salad. I would order both again and would definitely recommend Sea Harvest as a place to stop and have a meal when traveling along HWY1. A bonus for seafood lovers is that inside the restaurant dining room is also a small fresh fish market stand. So you can eat or shop at Sea Harvest.

After lunch I stepped back out onto the deck to see if any otters had moved closer to our side of the harbor. They hadn't but a few new jellyfish had arrived. I believe this is a Sea Nettle Jelly. The hood was transparent.

But then I saw this much larger Sea Nettle Jellyfish with an opaque, much more orange colored hood. I'm not sure if they are different varieties or one was a juvenile and the other an adult but it really didn't matter. It was amazing to see them drifting and swimming free out in nature.

I ended up chatting with another woman who was out enjoying the same views. She recounted how she had been on a whale watching tour that morning with Sanctuary Cruises and had seen Blue Whales, Humpback Whales and porpoises! I was jealous but had fun telling her about the Stellar Sea Lion I'd seen at Fisherman's Wharf just a few hours earlier. Then she noticed that there were people on the far side of the harbor photographing the Sea Otters! I thanked her for the tip and drove further down the Highway to Moss Landing State Beach.

From there I parked my car on Jetty Road then hiked down this access road, closed to vehicles but open to pedestrians.

Along the way I spotted dozens of sleeping Harbor Seals basking in the sun along the sandy beach.

Finally I arrived across from the restaurant and closer to the raft (group) of otters.

Some had even come out of the water and were playing along the shoreline.

It may make you sad to know that from the mid 1700's to the early 1900's, man had hunted the now protected otters to the point of extinction with only 1000-2000 known to be living in the wild. In total as many as half a million sea otters may have been killed for their their thick and beautiful furs almost eradicating the otters from the face of the earth. Now, their biggest threats are oil spills, parasites, disease and sharks.

I'm not sure if this one was yawning or talking.

The top image shows how their hind legs are more flippers than paws.

There were just over 20 total and most were cavorting, eating or grooming in the water. One of the first things I noticed was that some of the otters have more white colored faces and others are completely dark brown.

Today California's Sea Otters remain on the Endangered Species List. When oil spills happen the otters have no chance at survival because they depend on their fur, not blubber or fat, to keep them warm. Once the oil clings to their fur it loses all of it's insulating qualities and they'll suffer from hypothermia and freeze to death. Something to think about when oil drilling and transport occurs near their habitats.

I walked even further down the shore and found this chubby otter. I know nothing about otter pups or gestation periods but something about her rotund shape made me wonder if she was pregnant.

Her behavior reminded me of my dog Kitai. She was all sprawled out but when she heard my camera shutter release she flopped her head back to look at me without actually getting up. Kitai does that a lot once he's splayed out resting.

Later, I noticed a different otter in a typical grooming pose that also seemed rather dog-like.

Which was about when I had the good fortune of photographing this Brown Pelican in flight!

Unlike most smaller birds that fly so fast my camera has problems focusing on them, pelicans are large and heavy and fly so slowly that shooting these images was a breeze. The coolest part was that I was above them which gave me a less typical perspective of their feather patterns.

There were plenty of pelicans resting along the breakwater at the southern end of this section of the harbor so if pelicans are your thing, lunch at Sea Harvest followed by some pelican watching could make for a nice afternoon in Moss Landing.

The water is so clean and clear you can see right through it. They're not in this picture but there were more large jellyfish floating right off shore.

And a final shot of the white faced otter lounging on the shore that just makes me smile. Its little paddy paws were filled with wet sand. The otter is definitely one of the cutest and most endearing of creatures :)

Here's a little map to show you where I went that day. There are even more shops and restaurants if you continue down Sandholdt Rd. I plan to visit them on my next trip.

Pot Stop at Little Baja - website
2360 Highway 1
Moss Landing, CA 95039

Sea Harvest Restaurant
2420 Hwy 1
Moss Landing, CA 95039

Moss Landing State Beach - website
Jetty Rd
Moss Landing, CA 95039

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