As I write this, it’s amazing outside: calm, clear, warm — 74° F (23° C) — and February. I don’t often get onto Monterey Bay in February because of rainy, windy weather and large swells. Yet I was going this morning, and had looked forward to a beautiful, easy paddle. But, that’s not how the day started. The bay was bouncy.
As it turned out, a swell of 3.5 feet (1 m) at 16 seconds was combining and competing with a swell of 4 feet (1.2 m) at 11 seconds, which created an irregular bumpy ride. I’m not a tough-it-out kayaker, but it was too nice a day to stop. So I turned my kayak and headed for the harbor.
Monterey Harbor is bordered on the west side (top right) by a U.S. Coast Guard pier and breakwater (built in the 1930s) and on the east side (bottom) by an active commercial fisherman’s wharf (Wharf II which was built in 1926). Between these structures is another wharf (Wharf I was first built in the early 1870s) — what our visitors know as Fisherman’s Wharf. A sea wall extends from Wharf II to Wharf I and encloses the Monterey Municipal Marina. (There are additional docks and mooring areas inside and outside the harbor.) I typically launch off the beach (bottom left), paddle along Wharf II and past the breakwater to reach the kelp beds off Cannery Row on the other side.
On days like today, when I kayak the harbor, I start on the outer edge of Wharf II, then duck under the wharf between pilings into the harbor. Inside I meander toward the breakwater and finish by crossing open water between the end of the breakwater and end of Wharf II to return to where I started. Within this loop is amazing history and interesting boats, but I search for wildlife, and I’m never disappointed.
Along Wharf II today, before I even got into the harbor, were a trio of hearty, handsome male surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata). Surf scoters are sea ducks that visit our area in the winter and probably will migrate away soon. On my beach walks I usually see them in small to large groups just beyond and in the breakers. In the shallow water, they dive for dinner: clams, crabs, snails and other invertebrates stirred up by the surf. These three paid me no mind.
Paddling between the pilings and along the sea wall, I was rewarded by colorful orange and purple seastars (Pisaster ochraceus) which are revealed by most low tides. (If you want to learn about the color variety, read this post on The Echinoblog.) These stars stick as if mounted, but because their locomotor system is hydraulic, I assume they don’t move much until the water returns. Then they commence feeding on attached mussels and barnacles.
My favorite spot inside the harbor is past Wharf I. It’s a stretch of shore that’s part of Fisherman’s Shoreline Park. This is a seal haven. At low tide, harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) snooze atop all of the waterline rocks. They’re everywhere and here year-round. Once I had a visitor ask me why there were so many dead animals in the harbor, and I explained about the stillness of sleeping harbor seals. If you watch long enough, you’ll see them move or hear them snort at one another. They watched me lazily as I paddled by. (There’s more about harbor seals in my bestiary). Today’s harbor seal retinue included seagulls, egrets and pelicans.
Most of the brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) I see along our shore are immature birds, and at least some are around year-round. Adult birds are here from fall through spring, and this one in full breeding plumage perched above the harbor seals was a great find. These birds breed in large colonies on the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. The mature adults will be with us till spring, then they’ll head to the islands. As you may know, we almost lost these amazing animals to the pesticide DDT. DDT weakened their egg shells, which were crushed by the adults’ feet during incubation. Since DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, brown pelicans have been making a comeback. In 2009, they were delisted from the U.S. list of endangered and threatened species due to the population’s recovery. Off California, their breeding areas are protected in the hopes the population will continue to grow. They’re impressive birds, whether standing stately on rocks or gliding elegantly past my kayak.
A group of birds in the harbor year-round are the cormorants (for details about our three local species, visit cormorants in my bestiary). This time of year Brandt’s cormorants (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) commandeer the breakwater for courting, mating and nesting. It’s entertaining to watch them move sea lions off the rocks by nagging, poking, pecking and making a nuisance. I noticed today that the Brandt’s are starting to sport their breeding colors, blue throat and fine white “whiskers,” but I didn’t see any nesting yet. The pelagic cormorants (P. pelagicus), which I see more often when in the kelp beds, have had their white flank patches for a while, but no sign of nesting materials yet.
As I left the breakwater and headed back toward the beach to end my trip, I was rewarded by a sea otter (Enhydra lutris) sighting. It was a surprise for both of us — the otter popped up next to me, then with a startled look quickly disappeared. I don’t always find sea otters in the harbor (I do in the kelp beds), but they’re fairly common and, in the spring, it’s not uncommon to encounter a mother with pup seeking calm waters. (You can read more about sea otters in my bestiary.)
Whenever I want to kayak and bay waters near me are too rough, I can rely on the harbor to make a paddle worth my while. I encourage you to find a place near you where you can view wildlife no matter the conditions.
City of Monterey California Harbor & Marina website (source of harbor photo)
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: Surf scoter, brown pelican
The Echinoblog. (2010, Mar. 30). Why is Pisaster ochraceus (aka ochre star) so many colors?
Thomas, T. & Copeland, D. (2006). Monterey’s Waterfront. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.