Magical Monterey

Sea otters are charming creatures. Watch them for a while and you’ll be enchanted by their
antics. They are cute whether they are grooming, sleeping, using a rock to crack open an
abalone shell or simply caring for their young. However, it wasn’t until my husband, Mike,
and I spent time exploring California’s Central Coast that I realized there’s one other
reason for whiling away an afternoon watching these playful creatures: Otters choose some
mighty fine spots in which to take up residence. Take Monterey, for instance. It’s much
more than the lush valleys, dramatic coastal scenery, golf courses (there are more than 25)
and wine tasting (Monterey County is one of the largest producers of premium wine grapes in
North America) it is noted for. It’s a Mecca for animal lovers, too. Located two hours
south of San Francisco, Monterey seems eons away from the hustle and bustle of big-city
life, yet it still scores highly with everything most travelers desire: bike paths, hiking
trails, opportunities to enjoy outdoor activities, shopping malls, movie theaters and so
much more. In this case, “more” includes legendary Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row — and
all that their shops and restaurants have to offer. Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the
area’s biggest attractions, showcases the abundant marine life and habitats of the bay.
More than 1.7 million visitors push through the turnstiles each year to view the strange
and colorful marine plants and animals that live there. Visitors marvel at the Outer Bay
wing, with its one-million-gallon tank displaying animals of the open ocean — including
prized giant Pacific bluefin tuna, the only giant tuna on exhibit outside of Japan. Some of
the tunas weigh several hundred pounds each. Other Outer Bay exhibits include sea turtles,
sharks and barracuda. Additional aquarium highlights include penguins, jellies, sharks, sea
otters, a giant kelp forest three stories high, and exhibits where you can see and touch
sea life. Whale watching is something to enjoy all year long along the Central Coast, with
different species taking center stage at various times. Look for gray whales migrating in
winter and early spring. Sporting the longest migration of any mammal, gray whales travel
nearly 6,000 miles from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to the birthing and breeding
lagoons of Baja California, Mexico, and back again. From April through November, keep an
eye out for the most acrobatic of all whales — the humpback. These whales lob their tails,
slap their flippers and complete breaches where they hoist the better part of their bodies
fully out of the water. Blue whales, the largest mammals on Earth, show up in the summer
months, usually in pairs or small groups. Orcas and other dolphins can be seen year-round.
In addition to the bottlenose dolphin of Flipper fame, visitors may see Pacific white-sided
dolphins, common dolphins, Dall’s porpoises, harbor porpoises and more. Fortunate visitors
may also spy leatherback sea turtles between late June and September. Whale-watching trips
are offered year-round by Monterey Bay Whale Watch Center, led by professional marine
biologists and marine naturalists. Other chartered whale-watching tours are available from
Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey and Moss Landing. About 20 miles north of Monterey, Moss
Landing is a quaint, coastal fishing village known for its fresh seafood, coastal wetlands
and antiques. It’s also an area that attracts birders and wildlife watchers who come to the
Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. Visit and you’ll see why Monterey
County was named “Birdiest County in North America” by the American Birding Association. We
toured the nearly seven-mile-long slough with Captain Yohn Gideon, enjoying the view from
the Elkhorn Slough Safari, a 27-foot pontoon boat. Although tours typically last two hours,
our excursion stretched an hour longer because we ventured out with folks from the Audubon
Society on their annual Christmas bird count. (More than 350 species of birds have been
observed in the slough, and the area continually ranks in the Top 10 for number of bird
species in the Audubon Christmas Counts.) We felt as though we were living a true-life
adventure as we explored more than 3,000 acres of marsh and tidal flats. In addition to sea
otters and harbor seals, we saw 68 species of birds. According to Captain Gideon,
California sea lions also cruise up the slough, though they weren’t around during our trip.
In addition to the animals we observed, we learned the area is home to more than 400
terrestrial plant species, 400 species of invertebrates and 80 species of fish. At least
six rare, threatened or endangered animals use the slough and surrounding areas, including
sea otters, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, least terns, clapper rails and Santa Cruz
long-toed salamanders. Although sea otters are found here year-round, spring is a good time
to see them. Sea otters are amusing to watch as they spend their days grooming their fur,
cracking shells on rocks positioned on their tummies, feeding, and often you’ll find them
anchored to offshore kelp strands while they rest and sleep. In fact, you can often see sea
otters, seals and sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf, the Municipal Wharf in downtown Monterey
and Cannery Row. Before heading offshore, there’s one more thing to be sure to do — visit
the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, just five minutes from Cannery Row. Not only
is the museum free, but it also offers a glimpse of the diverse plant and animal life of
Monterey County and Monterey Bay. In addition, there’s a gift shop and a native plant
garden. Monterey’s entire shoreline is embraced by the Monterey Bay National Marine
Sanctuary, the largest and deepest of the nation’s marine sanctuaries. Stretching north to
near San Francisco and south to Cambria, the sanctuary extends from the high tide line to
an average of 30 miles offshore. It covers an area roughly the size of the state of
Connecticut — more than 5,300 square miles — and conceals an underwater canyon twice as
deep as the Grand Canyon. Home to 226 recorded shipwrecks, the preserve harbors 26
threatened or endangered species. Explore Monterey, both from the land and from the sea,
and you’ll no doubt admit that those sea otters, while charming, are also real-estate
savvy. They know a good place when they see it.

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