When this trip was in the planning stages and I found out we were going to Monterey, I thought man, it would be really cool to see a sea otter in the wild. But you probably need to go out on a boat for that and we don’t have time for a boat tour of the bay. Oh well, maybe if we’re really lucky we’ll get a glimpse of one from shore.
We got so much more than a glimpse.
Our day driving up Big Sur ended at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a place I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone who likes wildlife and is thinking of visiting the coast of central California. We had gotten out of our car and were walking out to a point that was supposed to be good for viewing sea lions when a man passing us going the other direction stopped to tell us that there was a pair of humpback whales off the north side of the point. Well! We skedaddled the rest of the way up the trail and sure enough, there were the whales, giving us good views of their backs and occasional glimpses of flukes every time they surfaced. Sadly there wasn’t anyway to get good photos of them with the limited zoom of my camera, but we watched them until they moved farther out, then checked out what other wildlife was around. Sure enough, there were sea lions and more harbor seals on the rocks below. But what we really wanted to find were sea otters.
As we walked back, we kept scanning the kelp beds offshore, sometimes mistaking a bobbing piece of kelp for a bobbing otter head. Finally, score! A ways out was a group of otters. We watched them through our binoculars, thinking, wow. Two seal species, sea lions, whales, and now sea otters, all in one day. It doesn’t get any better than this. Or does it?
To our amazement, the otters seemed to keep pace with us as we moved further along the shore back toward our car, and they were actually coming in closer. And closer.
Soon we had picked our way out onto another conveniently-placed outcropping of rocks to watch sea otters foraging practically right beneath our feet. We had front-row seats to behavior you see on nature shows on the Discovery Channel but never expect to witness in real life. The otter closest to us would dive briefly, and come up floating on its back with a rock balanced on its chest and a pawful of what appeared to be sea urchins, which it would smash against the rock to break open and then eat. It knew perfectly well we were there – occasionally it would glance up at us – but was comfortable enough with our presence to let us sit there and watch it for what must have been half an hour. At one point the other otter it was with lost track of its location and spent a minute looking around and squealing unhappily, until it finally spotted its friend (or parent?) and swam over to reunite with it. (Okay, I’m being a little anthropomorphic, but can you blame me? They’re such charismatic, expressive animals.)
After this, seeing the sea otter exhibit at the Monterey Bay aquarium the following day was something of an anticlimax… more to come.