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MONTEREY BAY - KAYAK WITH SEA OTTERS

Story and photos by

"We're not going out in those waves, are we?" we ask apprehensively, watching two-meter-high breakers roll in and crash on the shore. It was easy to imagine our kayaks spinning like tops, then emerging as toothpicks in the surf.

"Sure we are," replies Frank Knight, with confidence. "If you look closely, you'll see smaller waves mixed in with the big ones. We'll launch you in a nice calm interval, so you'll be beyond the swells before the next breaker rolls in," he assures us.

Kayaking in front of the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Kayaking in front of the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Knight, we reasoned, should know what he's talking about. He is owner of Adventures by the Sea, a company that rents kayaks, bicycles, paddleboards and other recreational equipment for exploring California's Monterey Bay area.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

We're joining him on a 2.5-hour guided tour, to learn about the ecology of the Bay, and the biology and habits of the creatures in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Knight was born in nearby Carmel and grew up in the area. (His father worked as a refrigeration mechanic in Cannery Row.) Several years ago, he began renting bikes from his home. Before long, he was not only delivering equipment, but also booking tours, horseback riding and fishing trips.

The biggest demand, by far, is for kayaks. Knight's kayaks are one- and two-man fibreglass ocean-going boats. Unlike river kayaks which are rounded and have no keels, the flatter, keeled, sea kayaks are much more stable.

Our visions of doing Eskimo rolls and gasping helplessly for air, as we tried to right our kayaks, vanish as soon as we hear that 75 per cent of Knight's business consists of first-timers. "They've ranged in age from four to 91," he adds.

How to paddle a kayak

We quickly don windbreakers and flotation vests, and walk down to the beach below the Monterey Plaza Hotel, where the kayaks are beached. Knight provides us with dry bags, which we can use for our cameras. He hands us each a two-bladed paddle and explains, over the roar of the crashing surf, how to use them.

"You grab the paddle with both hands, reach forward with your right hand and put the paddle in the water. You then sweep back until your hand reaches your hip, slice the paddle out of the water and do a downward rotation of the wrist," he describes.

In a matter of minutes, we begin to feel comfortable with the shallow, sweeping figure-eight stroke. Steering, we learn, is similar to steering a canoe, using the paddle as a rudder.

It's time to depart. We sit in our kayaks and wait, as wave after wave (looking mighty intimidating from sand-level) pounds the beach in front of us. Then, as quick as lightning, Knight and one of his guides launch us. Like stones in a slingshot, we find ourselves smoothly gliding through the smooth sapphire water, 200 meters offshore.

There are no breakers here, just gently rolling waves. "This is a rough day," says Knight when he joins us. "Normally it's as smooth as glass."

The kayaks are amazingly comfortable, with plenty of leg-room. We sit so low in the water that it feels as if we're paddling in it, rather than on top of it. Because we're not strapped in, it's easy to swing our bodies from side to side to take in our surroundings.

Giant kelp
Giant kelp
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium look quite different from the water. The weather-beaten ex-sardine canneries, propped up on barnacle-encrusted pylons, look much like the backside of a theatre stage set.

Kelp — the world's largest algae

Traveling over the kelp forest is much like paddling through thick vegetable soup. The voluminous brown seaweed grows up from the bottom, then spreads itself along the surface, supported by air-filled bladders.

"Kelp is the largest algae in the world," says Knight. "During the summer, it can grow up to 25 centimeters a day, reaching heights of more than 30 meters," he adds. "The kelp is protected here, but further south of us, it's harvested with sea combines.

"Algin from the kelp is used as a stabilizing and homogenizing agent to make ice cream, salad dressings, chocolate milk, toothpaste, shaving cream and dozens of other products that we use every day."

Sea otters

Kelp forests, undulating below the surface, also provide food and shelter for the bay's aquatic inhabitants, notably the sea otters. These endearing, be-whiskered mammals were slaughtered for their luxurious pelts until 1911, when they nearly became extinct. It wasn't until the 1960s that they reappeared in Monterey Bay.

"Today, there are about 20 otters in the Marine Sanctuary, and a total population of about 1800 between Big Sur and Ãno Nuevo Island, just north of Santa Cruz," cites Knight.

As he speaks, a brown head pops up 20 meters away and surveys us with its button eyes. "They're very curious animals," remarks Knight. "I brought someone out last week, and an otter clamoured aboard his kayak for a closer look."

Sea otter in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Sea otter in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A schoolteacher, who rented a kayak from Adventures by the Sea, returned one day with an even better story. Apparently, a sea otter emerged next to her kayak, with a Nikonos camera tucked under its arm. A couple minutes later, two scuba divers surfaced in a burst of bubbles. They told her that the otter had stolen their camera. She paddled up closer to the otter. It swam towards her, threw the camera into the kayak and dashed off.

As Knight recounts the story, another otter bobs up, next to our kayaks, and nonchalantly floats on his back munching an abalone the size of a small pizza. The crunching of his teeth on the shell sounds like he's cracking nuts.

"If you look at his teeth, you'll see that sea otters are closely related to minks, badgers, skunks and weasels," he says. "Unlike whales and seals which have a layer of blubber to keep them warm in the cold ocean, sea otters rely on their fur coats. While humans have about 100,000 hairs on their heads, sea otters have up to a million hairs per square inch of surface area. The hair is so thick that the water never comes in contact with their skin."

As we watch the otter wolf down $50 worth of abalone, then dive down to his kelp forest 'grocery store' to retrieve more food, Knight explains that the animals' high rate of metabolism also helps to keep them warm. "They stoke the furnace all the time, by eating up to a quarter of their body weight each day to maintain their temperature."

While this means that each otter is devouring up to five kilos of crabs, clams, mussels, snails and abalone every day — much to the chagrin of local fishermen — the otters are actually doing the fishermen a service. By feasting on sea urchins, which, unchecked, destroy kelp forests, otters maintain the ecological balance essential to the health of the kelp beds and the fishermen's livelihood.

Otters use tools

"Did you notice that the abalone shell was broken on one side?" asks Knight. "That's because the otter used a tool to dislodge it from a rock." Otters carry their tools under their arm-flaps, and pull them out, when needed, to crack open clam shells or even to bash open a sunken aluminum can to remove an octopus that's taken refuge inside.

While most otters use rocks as tools, Knight remembers one who used the thick base of an old Coke bottle. Sometimes, an otter will use a rock or concrete slab on its belly as an anvil to hammer open a shellfish. It eats the meal, using its midriff as a table, turning its torso over in the water to clear away the crumbs.

Mother otters also use their stomachs as portable playpens, for their furry pups. Sculling along on their backs, they deposit their youngsters on the kelp bed canopy, before diving for food. Securely wrapped in the kelp blanket nursery, the helpless pups won't be washed ashore by the surf.

We, too, anchor ourselves by grasping the kelp strands, to keep our kayaks from drifting ashore, while observing the animals. Another otter surfaces with a crab, disassembling and eating one leg at a time, before twirling the body like a jelly donut to gnaw at the edges.

Hanging on to kelp to anchor kayaks
Hanging on to kelp to anchor kayaks
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We instinctively paddle closer, but Knight cautions us to maintain a 10-metre distance between us and the otter. "Let him decide if he wants to come closer," he says. The curious otter does gradually move towards our kayaks, but he abruptly stops when a couple seagulls descend on his belly to snatch away some tasty tidbits.

We see other birds, as well — web-footed auks, pterodactyl-like pelicans, and black cormorants that dive as deep as 18 meters. "A lot of these diving birds lack oil in their plumage, so their feathers actually absorb water and make them heavier," notes Knight. "Sometimes they get so wet they can't fly, so they stand out there on the rocks with their wings hung out to dry."

Harbor seals & sea lions

The seals and sea lions also compete for our attention. (There's a year-round colony of about 85 sea lions on the rocks by the shore.) Because it's windy, they're out in the water, rather than sunning on the rocks.

Knight explains how we can tell the difference between a harbour seal and a California sea lion. "The seals have a very hydrodynamic profile, since they don't have an external ear, while the sea lions have ears as well as bulbous foreheads." The sea lions are also much larger, weighing up to 400 kilos compared to the seals, which weigh less than 140.

A harbour seal playfully pokes his head up next to our kayaks. By the time we focus our cameras, he's disappeared. We wait, in vain, for him to resurface, only to discover him watching us from the opposite side of the boat.

Oil tanker spills

As other seals escort us back to our starting point, Knight explains that the oil tankers cruising along this 360-kilometer stretch of coastline make the small number of otters especially vulnerable to a catastrophic oil spill. (American tankers maintain an 80-kilometer buffer.)

He is very conscious of the fragile ecology of the area, and frequently donates his staff, kayaks and time to pick up any trash that floats into the bay. "We pick up soft drink cans, beer bottles and plastic bags that blow in from fishing boats," he says.

"A sea turtle will die if it eats a plastic bag. If the bag gets caught in its stomach and prevents it from eating, it will starve."

As we reach our starting point, Knight guides us in so that we're riding the smooth water behind a breaker. Noting our ear-to-ear smiles, Knight comments that he loves watching once-nervous novices return from a trip with new skills, knowledge and confidence.

We understand. Even those two-meter-high breakers look small now.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Adventures by the Sea: www.adventuresbythesea.com

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