“An ecological treasure at the heart of Monterey Bay.”

~Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

It’s Saturday morning in Monterey, California, and the sun won’t be rising for almost an hour. The air is brisk and biting, causing me to question my decision not to have packed a wool hat along with my warm gloves, neck gaiter and puffy jacket.

Herb and I are headed about twenty miles north on Highway 1 for a photo safari on Elkhorn Slough (pronounced sloo), a seven-mile estuary at the edge of Monterey Bay. “The slough,” as it is affectionately called, is home to a diverse and abundant population of migratory birds, fish, harbor seals and Southern sea otters. The area is one of California’s largest wetlands and is part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve.

I first heard about Elkhorn Slough from our daughter Emily, who has kayaked here with her husband and is head over heels about the place. “Mom, you will love it,” she has been telling me. “It’s so beautiful, and the sea otters pop up all around you.” All she had to say was sea otters, and I was intrigued.

With cameras in hand, we join six other photography enthusiasts at the Elkhorn Slough Safari office in Moss Landing. After signing in and going over a few brief instructions, we head to the dock and our awaiting pontoon boat. Our captain Andrea and naturalist Brianna assign seats for balance and review safety procedures, including mandatory Covid-19 mask requirements.

The dock at Moss Landing harbor.
Our ride for the morning.
Heading out of the harbor…
…and ready to meet some sea otters!

Moss Landing Harbor Sign on Pier - the modern postcard

First Sea Otter Sightings

As we make our way into the slough, Andrea explains that she will steer the boat as closely to the birds and marine mammals as possible without disturbing them. And almost as if on cue, just as we leave the harbor entrance, several otters pop up a few yards from one side of the boat. They move quickly, but we’re able to capture our first photos.

A mom and her pup.

Scenes from the Slough

The overcast sky and shades-of-gray water create the illusion of sailing into a monochromatic world. Even with a few soft splashes of color dotting the landscape, it’s a moody, muted place, quiet except for the distant bellows of harbor seals. As I check a few photos on my camera screen, it almost appears as if I’m shooting in black-and-white.

When I had booked the tour, the reservationist explained that the photo safaris head out early because of the optimal light conditions. I now understand exactly what she meant.

Sea Birds & Harbor Seals

As we sail deeper into the slough, sea birds and harbor seals come closer into view. More than 340 species of resident and migratory birds make Elkhorn Slough their home, and from what we can see, it’s a colorful mix. Graceful white egrets, blue-gray-winged great blue herons, green-headed mallards and red-eyed eared grebes go about their daily routines as our cameras click at full speed, attempting to capture these elusive creatures.

The egret…
…eared grebe…
…a reflective great blue heron…
…and another in flight.

A speedy shutter finger, however, is not a necessity with the harbor seals. If anything, they are most happy to oblige, slowly looking up from the spots they’ve staked out along the shore. It seems to me they are the ultimate definition of lolling.

A mom and her pup…
…and another.

Sea Otters & Eelgrass

About halfway through the tour, we reach an area rich with eelgrass, an underwater plant with bright green ribbon-like leaves that poke through the water. The sea otters seem to wrap themselves among the leaves, lounging on the water’s surface as if spread out on a sofa. Eelgrass is an important ingredient in the ecosystem, and according to the Elkhorn Slough website, the otters have helped it thrive by eating the crabs who would otherwise prey on sea slugs that keep the leaves healthy.

I love the way the eelgrass shimmers in the early morning light, creating an illusion of splashy white streaks in an emerald sea. One moment the individual leaves are easy to distinguish, and the next they disappear into a sparkling backdrop.

A “raft” of sea otters resting in eelgrass.

Sea Otters Swimming at Elkhorn Slough - the modern postcard

A mom holding her pup.

One More Before We Leave 

We have been on the slough almost two hours when Andrea turns the boat toward the harbor, ready to retrace our route. The sky is still overcast, the water still awash in shades of gray. I feel like I’ve been traveling through an old sepia-toned photograph. Maybe it’s just that kind of day. Or maybe Elkhorn Slough is just that kind of place.

I put my camera down as we reach the harbor entrance, assuming I’ve taken my final photo. Suddenly, I hear a splash just inches from where I’m sitting. A face appears, and I grab my camera as fast as I possibly can. It’s the closest we’ve been to an otter all morning, and this one wastes no time going back underwater and popping up again.

Droplets of water are dripping off his slicked-backed fur. He looks absolutely waterlogged, like a child who has stayed outside too long playing in the rain. And compared with the other sea otters we’ve seen in the slough, he’s a bit of a mess.

But oh, what an adorable mess.

12 Comments

  • Another lovely trip, thanks to your exploratory nature. The sea otters are adorable, especially the ones who smiled at you! I’m so glad to receive these writings.

    • Judy, I really appreciate your comment and kind words. Thanks as always for reading! There’s just something incredibly heart-melting about sea otters’ faces. I like to think that one smiled at me as well 🙂

  • What a magical place. Your photos are terrific, Mary and those landscapes with the kayakers could be watercolours. There’s definitely something about those sea otters that wins me over every time too – cuteness overload 🥰 Elkhorn Slough is now added to my list, thank you. Thank you for taking us on a recce!

  • “Cuteness overload” – I love that, Gill! Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I’m happy that the magical, watercolor-like feel of the place came across in the photos. It truly felt as if we were traveling through a very special world. Do add Elkhorn Slough to your list…which I imagine is as long as mine!

  • What a wonderful little excursion. I can see why your daughter is head over heels for the place, I would be too. I love seeing the “old men of the sea” as they often refer to 🦦s in Alaska. Hope to see some this summer when we do boat tours.

  • Erin, so good to hear from you! I love your “old men of the sea” reference…thanks so much for sharing. You surely will have some fabulous photo opportunities of sea otters – and the abundance of wonders! – in Alaska. I look forward to following along on your travels.

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