Tales of the Unexpected, California

Dedicated birdwatchers can seek out endangered species, such as the California least tern and western snowy plover.

The orcas have stalked and cornered a seal, and are now busy making a meal of it in the bobbing waters of Monterey Bay, California. Each takes its turn in the destruction while passengers on the boat stare open-mouthed, binoculars glued to their faces.

It’s not just the passengers, though. Dorris Welch of Sanctuary Cruises, and our boat’s onboard marine biologist, is also transfixed. “I can’t remember a sighting this good,” she says with clear delight.

The orcas treat us to quite a show. They go under the water for up to five minutes, then emerge somewhere completely different — occasionally they leap out right by the boat, breaching the water in synchronised harmony that seems professionally choreographed.

We’ve come looking for whales but end up being surrounded by dolphins. Although orcas are called killer whales, they belong to the dolphin family. “Monterey Bay is on the grey whale highway — it’s a key stop on the migration route,” explains Welch. “But they’re shy when the orcas are around.”

Animal Kingdom

Such an ecosystem isn’t necessarily the first thing that springs to mind when you think of California, but the coastal region between Los Angeles and San Francisco is home to a surprising range of critters. The state has something of an island ecology, with the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada cutting it off from the rest of the North American landmass. Throw in a large coastline and a wide range of terrains, and you’re left with numerous unique plants and animals. In fact, California is home to almost 50 per cent of America’s bird and mammal species.

Monterey Bay is the honey pot, barely detached from the urban sprawl that heads south from San Francisco, including the popular coastal cities of Santa Cruz, Carmel and Monterey. The secret to this area is in the geography. Underwater, depths drastically drop to almost 3000 metres thanks to the Monterey Canyon, an ancient, river-carved scar on the ocean floor that is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Centuries of sediments and nutrients flushed through it, combined with colder water temperatures, make it an ideal environment for abundant life. Fishing is still a major industry here, though whaling has been replaced by whale watching.

In recent years, preservation attempts have also helped to swell the number of creatures that were almost wiped out. The Californian sea otter is the perfect example. Until a ban on hunting was introduced in 1911, the sea otter was slaughtered en masse for its fur, the densest of any mammal on earth, with between 170,000 and one million hairs per square inch. Things became so dire it’s believed that the thousands now found along the coast are descended from a colony of only about 50 survivors discovered living near a creek in the Big Sur region.

As our boat pulls into the harbour at Moss Landing, the sea otters don’t seem threatened. We pass a few floating on their backs in the water. One is busy grooming itself; another has its paws up to its chest, blissfully munching away on abalone.

They’re the dictionary definition of cute, and seem quite content to share the water with the numerous harbour seals that the orcas haven’t got at yet.

Seal Views

Further down the coast, another extraordinary example of preservation in action can be found on the beach near the Piedras Blancas lighthouse, north of San Simeon. On the grey sands lie thousands of elephant seals; it’s like watching a noisy, honking, smelly version of Big Brother. Mothers cuddle their young, youths stand off against each other in bursts of fledgling machismo, while the rest flip sand over themselves or shuffle down to the water’s edge. The elevated platform around the beach makes for an engrossing viewing point, as folks in blue jackets indicate the dedication to protect this remarkable haven. As volunteer docents from the Friends of the Elephant Seal organisation, the mostly grey-haired ladies hang around the beach handing out leaflets and answering visitor questions.

One such member, Joan Crowder, explains: “In the 1880s, elephant seals were nearly extinct, hunted by whalers for their blubber. A small colony was discovered on Guadalupe Island in Mexico in the late 1880s, and the Mexican government declared them protected in 1922. It’s believed that all northern elephant seals descended from that small Mexican colony. “There are approximately 16,000 seals in the Piedras Blancas rookery, but they are never all there at the same time. They migrate to the north Pacific to feed and return to California in a rotation of ages and genders. They are always fasting when they are here, so they don’t deplete our fishery, or defecate and foul the beaches.”

Born to be Wild

This same conservation is at least partly responsible for burgeoning wildlife off the coast too. The Channel Islands, which are located east of Los Angeles and best accessed from Ventura, were declared a national park in 1980. They’re only accessible by boat or plane, accommodation is strictly campers-only and anything taken onto the islands has to be taken off. A number of unique fox, lizard, salamander and skunk species live here, but the real delights are in the water. The reefs and abundant sea life make the islands a prime snorkelling and diving destination, while dolphins merrily jump around in the wake of the catamarans coming from the mainland.

Further along the coast, the Saharan-like Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes system is a massive contrast to the green vineyard-strewn hillsides of Santa Barbara County you drive through to get to it. Dedicated birdwatchers can seek out endangered species, such as the California least tern and western snowy plover. Beach access is restricted during the breeding season between March and September, but the scenery holds just as much appeal.

For a glimpse of the Golden State’s best-loved creatures, go to San Francisco. The California sea lions that hang around San Fran’s ultra-touristy Pier 39 started besieging the docks after the 1989 earthquake. Numbers were small at first, but their protected status in the marina and plentiful food supply now means up to 1000 of the noisy beasts take over the docks each summer. It’s illegal for humans to disturb them — the docks can’t even be used to moor boats. The pampered sea lions are shameless entertainers, content with squaring up to each other and trying to shunt interlopers off the floating platforms. Every summer when the sea lions leave for their breeding grounds at the Channel Islands, there is much fretting over whether they’ll ever come back. So far, they always have. California’s conservation culture is paying off.

Wild Wild West

From sea lion spectacles in the cooler months to birdwatching opportunities in summer, the west coast of America offers plenty of action year-round.

Dolphins

  • Where: The Channel Islands 
  • When: Year-round
  • Nearby: Go on a wine-tasting tour in Santa Barbara county 

Birds

  • Where: The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes
  • When: Year-round
  • Nearby: Walk the dunes and find remnants of the set of Cecil B DeMille’s 1923 epic, The Ten Commandments. The bombastic director built a lavish set, then buried it in the sand rather than removing it.

Zebras (Yes, Zebras!)

  • Where: The Hearst Castle, San Simeon
  • When: Year-round
  • Nearby:Hearst Castle was, until 2010, regarded by Guinness World Records as the most expensive private home ever built. The tours around newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s dream abode are eye-popping, but the remnants of his private zoo are the real spectacle. The semi-wild zebras are often seen peering out over the road.

Elephant Seals

  • Where: Piedras Blancas 
  • When: Year-round — the seals tend to come in rotation, although January to March is the best time to see newborn pups.
  • Nearby:Once you’re north of Piedras Blancas, you hit the Big Sur region. It’s home to the most scenic stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway that runs between Los Angeles and San Francisco; magnificently brooding beaches and forested wilderness that you can hike through for hours without seeing another soul.

Whales and Sea Otters

  • Where: Monterey Bay
  • When: Grey whales pass through between December and April, blue whales generally arrive between June and October, and humpbacks are mostly found between late April and early December. The orcas are transient, while the grey whales are easily spotted as they stick closer to the coast. The sea otters are permanent residents of the area.
  • Nearby: The Monterey Bay Aquarium is justifiably regarded as one of the best in the world. For a cruise on the bay, try Sanctuary Cruises.

California Sea Lions

  • Where: Pier 39, San Francisco 
  • When: The dates are inconsistent, as many sea lions head to the Channel Islands each summer for breeding season. However, a small community remains at the pier all year round.
  • Nearby: More wildlife, such as California brown pelicans, can be found on Alcatraz Island. Ferries to the world’s most famous former prison leave from Pier 33.
Words by David Whitley - Published in Voyeur November 2011
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