Orcas off Cannery Row!

Last summer a pod of orcas were sighted and filmed inside Monterey’s outer harbor, one of the few times they have been seen close to shore in a developed area in Northern California.

On Monday Nancy Black of Monterey Bay Whale Watch was captaining the Pt. Sur Clipper when she observed a pod of transient orcas west of Moss Landing. She tracked the pod to just outside Monterey harbor, then past the Monterey Bay Aquarium to Pt. Cabrillo, where they turned and headed back to Moss Landing.

Headed towards Monterey.

A pod of 5-6 orcas cruised Cannery Row on Monday, here are two of them at the surface as they pass the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

During the transit they swam a few hundred yards off Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Observant visitors on the viewing deck would have easily seen them pass by. There were no kayakers or dive boats in the area, but it is not unusual to see them in the same waters the orcas swam through. That would be quite the experience, something you would not forget, a clear reminder that when in the ocean we are not the alpha predator unless we are wrapped in steel.

Checking out the boat, from about three feet.

It’s worth noting that the last recorded attack on a human by an orca happened just a few hours swim south, off Big Sur in the early 1970’s.

Off Hopkins- Point Cabrillio, just west of aquarium.

Monterey is a magical place. If you see a whale watch boat- about the size of a “party” fishing boat but with more people and no fishing poles- near shore and it is moving slowly with all the people on one side, stop and watch. It’s a good bet they are following whales! I’ve seen minke whales, harbor porpoises, gray whales and Risso’s dolphins in the same general area, and know people who have seen humpbacks and even blues there too.

During the transit they attacked and consumed at least one seal or harbor porpoise, if you look carefully in the image below you can see a shape in the water that is a small piece of something. The kill took only a few minutes.

Orcas killing a marine mammal. If you look carefully at the lower right you can see something in the water in front of the female swimming against her pod mates, a common behavior when they are dividing the kill.

Individual orcas are easily identified by the pattern of light coloring behind their dorsal fins called saddle patches, nicks and cuts in the dorsal and sometimes by the shape and location of their eye patches.

Two transient orcas, one with a distinctive dorsal fin.

This pod makes regular visits to our waters, Nancy says they have been sighted as far north as Washington state and as far south as the Mexican border. One male in the group the researchers call “Stubby” has a very distinctive dorsal that was cut off about halfway up. I’ve seen him multiple times, going back as far as 2008. Today he came by the boat and gave us a very good view of his dorsal, as you can see below.

‘Stubby’, an adult male transient orca, showing his damaged dorsal fin. Residents, (the fish eating) orcas have a split saddle patch- the gray swoosh of pigment on either side of his dorsal fin- and are easy to distinguish from transients.

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The passing of a homeless kayaker

Robert Bruce Facer

I just read an article in the San Jose Mercury News about a homeless man, Robert Bruce Facer, who lived out of his kayak. He died last week in Monterey at 65, from acute heart problems. The article was a polite and thoughtful review of his life. He clearly lived life as he choose.

I saw him once, at the entrance to Elkhorn Slough, from a distance. I took this image at the time, knowing nothing about him until I read the story today. I now regret not seeking him out, even if just to say hello. When I saw him I had recently completed a crossing of Monterey bay by kayak, and wondered to myself how he could move from port to port, as open ocean kayaking is at best dangerous, and to the unprepared or unyoung suicidal.

The Merc story said he grew up middle class and went to college, but chose a different path in the 1960’s. After living rough in Alaska he eventually made his way down the Pacific coast, walking and paddling when he could. Last year he moved from Moss Landing to Monterey, where the kind citizens, in keeping with their traditions, allowed him safe refuge.

I’m left to ponder how he would have been treated in other cultures- Europe, the East Coast, or the South. A friend once told me the true measure of a person’s worth is not how he treats his peers, but how he treats the janitor. That is something we seem to have lost in our endless rush to embrace unbridled greed.

In general harbors are forgiving places, many of us drawn to the sea are at the outer ends of the bell curve. He might have chosen that environment or got there by natural selection. Steinbeck and Ricketts would have been proud of their home treating him with the dignity they did.

I’m sorry not to have made his acquaintance. I’ve a mindset to be warm and respectful to homeless people, as a friend once repeated to me after giving a dollar to one; “There but for the grace of God go I”, a lesson he learned from parents raised in the depression.

It may be I have seen him on the street in Monterey, once near McDonald’s I talked to a man that fit his general description. He was traveling rough, but was articulate and polite. We should all wonder how other cultures would have treated him. Was not arresting him enough? When you see a homeless person wonder what stories they could tell, and realize they are someone’s son, brother, aunt or uncle.

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Image of the week

California sea lions, especially juveniles, are very playful.   This image was taken in the ‘golden hour’, when the sun gets close to the horizon the quality of light improves, the harsh shadows of mid day fade, the light gets softer and warmer.   The subject of this picture was resting on the buoy off Monterey’s Cannery Row when a boat passed close enough to generate a substantial wake wave.  The  sea lions resting on  the buoy could not resist the opportunity to surf and frolic in the waves, and into the water they went.

I often see sea lions porpoising-traveling fast by leaping clear of the water in repetitive dives, like dolphins- but this was nothing more than adolescent horseplay, kids enjoying life.

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Image of the week

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in the Midwest or East Coast can attest to how easy it is for a keen observer of nature to discern not just the season, but to know almost to the day where they are by simply looking out the window.  Other than the purgatory that is a bleak Midwestern winter, the march of time is unmistakable once the first bud of spring arrives.

Our coast’s seasons are much more muddled. Once the rains stop and the hills bake to brown we are in for five or six months of sameness.   The year’s weather drama plays out largely in the three months of December, January and February.  The drama- best storms in 2012- rain, wind and waves- were late in the season.  Here’s an image of an early April clearing storm at Davenport on the San Mateo county coast.

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It’s Orca Season

Orcas are fast and maneuverable, if they are not on a kill they decide how close to visit with boats.

It’s orca season! Monterey Bay Whale Watch saw ten orcas preying on a minke whale and a harbor porpoise on the 15th. Here are some orca images.

A mother calf pair in Mexico, they won't stop to visit now, they are worried about getting eaten.

A mother calf pair in Mexico, they won't stop to visit now, they are worried about getting eaten.

The gray whale counters in Santa Barbara are starting to see lots of gray whale mother calf pairs, the reports from Mexico said it was a good calving year.

This means lots of food for orcas. There are media reports of many undernourished elephant seals in the area. Young sea lions are moving up from So Cal, they are covering the breakwater in Monterey and the visitors dock at Elkhorn. The orca population should continue to recover, as long as their food supply remains plentiful. Expect to see them sighted closer and closer to seal haul outs as they realize humans won’t shoot them. Last summer they were photographed inside the breakwater in Monterey.

I saw lines of pelicans, still in their breeding plumage, flying north near Moss Beach late last week too, the seasons are changing.

A pod of orcas in mid bay.

I am uncomfortable with whale watch boats following gray mother calf pairs now, they are in stealth mode to avoid orcas. Good captains avoid them.

A crowd of whale watchers at Bodgea Head

Grays are at or near the surf line passing us in decent numbers through early May. You might have to wait a bit but if you are patient and the surf and winds are mild they are easily seen from shore. Point Lobos, Pigeon Point, the lighthouse at Drakes, the coastal bluffs at Davenport, and Bodega Head are great spots.

If you go on the boats over the next month you may see orca kills, something I don’t enjoy, but it is life unvarnished.

Orca killing a young California sea lion off Moss Landing.

I’ve been on all the boats in the area, and recommend Monterey Bay Whale Watch, all their captains are good, and the naturalists top rate. If Nancy or Richard are at the helm it’s a special treat, both are researchers, and publish papers on orcas. Try to pick days with low wind and go early.

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Tragedy at the Farallones


The water community was saddened by the tragic accident at the Farallones on Saturday, where five sailors died during a race. Two weeks ago there was a serious accident in a ’round the world’ race, farther off shore, but it was also caused by a breaking wave. Fortunately in that accident no one lost their life. Both of these incidents highlight the potential ferocity of the Pacific at our latitudes, close to the roaring forties.

There was a double handed race around the Farallones in April 1982 – thirty years ago, almost to the day- that turned out to have rougher than forecast weather. In that race seven boats and six lives were lost including two J-24s, small racing sailboats. If you read the end of the article in the above link you will be amazed at the stories, one boat trying to get back into the gate started as far south as they could was still blown onto the rocks at Pt. Bonita and destroyed, however both crew got to shore alive. Others were not so lucky. One of the J-24s was named Bad Sneakers, every time I hear the Steeley Dan song I am reminded of it. The ’82 race was an epic disaster at sea, 17 boats had to be rescued or were lost. Not to take away from the hardship, but this seems to be one boat hit by a freak wave or a case of cutting it too close to shore to make time.

The biggest difference any small boat encounters when moving from the protected waters of a bay to the ocean is breaking waves. Even if the water is deep enough to sail through it may be shallow enough to cause a swell to break onto the boat.

The view as you approach the islands from the east.

The islands are remote and windswept, rocky and steep, with no harbor, and landfall if you could do it, is forbidden. There are only two trees on the entire group of islands, and they are cowering from the wind in the shelter of the two houses. One each, without a branch higher than either roof. It’s a tough place to make a living.

With no natural harbor all cargo and people are unloaded by this crane, from anchored boats on calm days.

A natural turning point for open ocean sailboat races out of San Francisco, the rocks are visible from most of the coastal bay area on clear days, just scan the western horizon. You have to be up a few hundred feet above sea level unless you are in Marin, but they are not hard to find. They are located about 25 miles off the coast and just north of the Gate. Currently they house a research and weather station and are a destination for fishing and whale watch cruises that depart from San Francisco. Compared to Monterey whale watching cruises the trip to the Farallones is longer, the sailings more infrequent, the cost higher, and the ocean is usually much rougher. The bonus is you get more time on the ocean and you get to travel under the Gate.

The largest island.

The islands are famous for great white shark attacks on seals, which should be expected because seals haul out there; it’s simply sharks looking for food where it lives. It’s a popular white research area, and there is lots of video footage of whites attacking pinapeds here. Often the islands are described as one anchor point of the “Red Triangle”, enclosing the waters from the mouth of the Russian river to Point Pinos in Monterey and swinging west to these islands.

The only trees and houses on the island.

The Farallones are no stranger to environmental disasters either, and mostly at the hand of man. During the gold rush unregulated egg hunting destroyed entire populations of sea birds that bred on the islands. The hunters would go through the nests once and destroy any incubating eggs, then come back a few days later and take the new eggs the birds laid to replace them. The species they targeted could only lay two eggs a season. This was done year after year until the populations crashed, after millions of eggs were harvested. The resident seals and sea lions were also harvested to local extinction, then our ancestors started on the fish. The last American commercial whale fishery hunted these waters as late as the early 1970s. Today the birds are recovering, the whales are down to a few percent of their historic populations and are still threatened, and the fish are in bad shape.

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An on the water guide to Elkhorn Slough

Elkhorn is the second largest slough (pronounced slew) or tidal wetland, in California. It undulates inland for seven miles. It’s entry to the Pacific is at the Moss Landing power plant, midway between Monterey and Santa Cruz. The 700 foot tall power plant smoke stacks are the most prominent landmark for fifty miles and are visible from anywhere in the bay.

It’s by far the best spot in California to observe otters in the wild, and a very safe place to see lots of wildlife and the place many kids and adults try kayaking. You won’t find big waves, sharks or orcas, and they won’t find you either.

From 30,000 feet.

The slough is conservation land, a status very similar to parkland. It is open to visitors year round and you can travel on the water six miles inland and stay within the reserve’s borders. Some areas of the slough are closed to all activities, these areas are marked, and shown on the image below. Hunting and fishing are permitted in a few specific areas also. As with all saltwater in California, any land up to the high tide line is held in the commons; private landowners cannot deny you access below the high tide line. Your visit to Elkhorn will mostly restrict you to the water, the bulk of the shoreline and a few well marked channels are set aside for habitat preservation and cannot be accessed. It is worth noting that the sand beaches fronting private property (south side,see map) just east of the bridge can be accessed up to the high tide line by law, as noted.

Access and kayak rentals

You can access the slough in any boat- except personal watercraft- although the low bridge at Highway One and vast areas of very shallow water discourage all but shallow draft boats- kayaks, paddle boards, canoes, small fishing boats. One commercial tour operator takes visitors into the slough on a pontoon boat.

A good option for people who want to see wildlife and can't paddle or suffer from motion sickness. Good for photographers too.

Kayaks can be rented by the day or hour at the Highway One end of the slough. The rental shops do not require previous experience or special training, renters are provided safety and basic kayak handling training. You can also book guided kayak tours with the shops. Many local eco-tour groups, including REI, offer guided tours of the slough.

The slough is shallow, narrow and twisty, so waves are not a problem. Currents, which can be hard to paddle against, are not usually strong enough to get boaters in trouble. You will not encounter whitewater and breaking waves are very unusual, if it’s very windy you may see very small waves restricted to the area just inside the Highway One bridge. The most dangerous area is the shipping channel where you launch; it is subject to some bay swell and boat traffic. Yield to any boat larger than you, the channel is narrow and they can’t safely leave it. The water is cold, in the fifties, but injuries and accidents are rare.

There are two spots to launch small boats- Kirby Park and the public boat ramp at Moss Landing. The most common way to enter is the Moss Landing ramp, it serves ocean going power boats also. There is a fee for launching and parking at Moss Landing, as well as a boat wash and permanent toilets. Kirby has portable toilets and is more isolated.

SUPs are relatively recent newcomers to the slough, and fit in well when the winds and tides are favorable.

Kirby Park parking and launch area. That's the Coast Starlighter, the tracks run right through the slough.

Weather
I am often asked what is the best season to paddle the slough. Regardless of when you go observant visitors will see a large and diverse variety of wildlife, and you will always encounter sea otters. Sunshine is fairly constant between winter storms, and absent most summer days. The quality of your visit will be greatly influenced by two principal forces of nature, one you can predict and one is more variable.

Tides
The slough is tidal, which means the moon and sun’s gravitational pull raise and lower the water level- empty and fill the slough twice a day. The tidal currents in the slough can exceed three miles an hour at peak flows in mid channel. A standard recreational kayak, 14-17 feet in length, paddled by an average person without great strain moves at about three miles an hour in still air and water. If you time your paddle so a rising tide carries you into the slough, then you head back out on a falling tide you will have very little work to do. If you do the opposite- paddle against the tide both in and out it’s a very different story. Tides are very predictable, and can be forecast with great accuracy years in advance. Many paddlers enter the slough when the tide is flowing out, so they are working against the tide in at least one direction and they still have an enjoyable paddle, but it is a constant battle against the current.

Unless you know where you are it’s never a good idea to leave the main channel on a falling tide. You could get stuck in mud and have to crawl out, or wait up to five hours for the water to return. Neither option is pleasant. The largest tide range the slough sees is about nine feet.

There are two periods of large tides every month, each period lasting a few days- the full and new moons. The tidal cycle is not 24 hours in length, so the time of high and low tide changes every day. You have to consult the tide charts for the days you want to paddle for the place you want to paddle to. Currents outside the peak periods are not as strong and you can paddle against them, and use tricks like hugging the shoreline to reduce their strength. If you are looking at a graphical tide chart the steepness of the curve tells you how strong the current is. Rarely, after large winter rains there is a freshwater outflow current, but it is unusual and short duration. Large swell in the bay will have no effect on slough waters once you are a few hundred yards east of Highway One.

Wind

The other major force you have to contend with at Elkhorn- wind- is just as strong and a little harder to predict. The wind at Elkhorn changes direction and intensity seasonaly. Winter winds generally accompany storm fronts, NOAA does a good job of predicting their timing and strength. They blow south to north. I suggest casual paddlers avoid windy winter days, winds above ten miles an hour make paddling difficult. If you see whitecaps on the ocean the wind speed is above ten miles an hour.

They went late on a windy summer day, and got a ride back.

Summer winds are somewhat cyclical; we will have a repeating pattern of a few not so windy days followed by very windy days. Summer winds flow west to east, and typically get stronger in the afternoon, so the earlier you get on the water the better. If strong winds are predicted start your paddle at the east end of the slough (Kirby), paddle to the mouth and let the wind blow you back. If you are renting it is wise to plan on a 9AM start, as soon as the shops open. When I paddle Elkhorn I try to be on the water at first light, before dawn. Many paddlers leave later and have enjoyable paddles, but summer afternoon winds are very common.

You can rent single or double kayaks, and they can be open(sometimes called Sit on Tops) or closed boats. Doubles are easier to paddle, and more fun if your group is even in number. Open boats are more stable, but half of your body will be in the wind and spray and as a consequence colder. Open boats require more effort to paddle and go a little slower. Their biggest disadvantage is the wind has more surface to grip, so they are a handful in windy conditions. Unless someone in the group is afraid of being trapped in a capsize I suggest groups go in closed deck doubles. Doubles are more stable than singles. Always get a rudder if one is available. Some boats don’t need them, but they make it easier to navigate and deal with wind should it arise. Children as young as five may enjoy the slough, often mom and dad will put a young one in the middle of a sit on top double, and as they get older they can start to handle a paddle in the front seat.

Wildlife

You will see harbor seals in the slough year round. You can also expect to see young California sea lions on the dock or in the channel near the entrance to the slough. They expect you and will ignore you, but it is wise to give them a wide berth. You would be hard pressed to hurt them, but if startled they could easily tip your boat, and sea lions do bite. Aquatic Park in San Francisco has a long history of sea lions biting swimmers. They are big carnivores, respect them. If I see them playing in the water near my boat I always thump the hull to let them know I am there.

These paddlers are a bit closer than they should be, especially in fabric boats.

You will also encounter otters. You can see pictures of them here. In the slough they are faster and more mobile than you, so they will avoid you if they want to. There is often a raft of resting male otters just inside the breakwater, you must give them a wide berth. You can be arrested if you hassle these otters, and the fines are not trivial. Any action on your part that changes their behavior is illegal. Don’t approach them, nor drift down on them.

In the slough you may encounter resting otters or mothers with babies. It is important to not disturb these animals, interrupted rest is very disruptive, increases infant mortality and contributes to poor survival rates in adults. Do not approach resting otters closer than 50 yards, nor paddle directly towards them. If an otter approaches you do not feed or touch it. Seal or otter bites should be treated by a medical professional promptly, and be reported.

This is one of the friendly otters, if she comes to your boat, do not touch or encourage her. She grew up in the aquarium and likes people.

Too Close!

Not too close!

Too Close!

Harbor seals may follow you, and rarely jump on boats if they see something that looks or smells like food, so plan accordingly. They should also not be bothered when they are resting on shore,do not approach them when they are on land. They work the night shift and daytime sleep is essential. In the water they will avoid you if they choose to do so.

A large flock of white pelicans takes wing.

The slough is a birders paradise. Shore birds, wading birds, brown and white pelicans, diving seabirds, and hawks are common visitors and residents. You can see the typical birds you will encounter here.

Brown pelicans are nearly constant visitors, provided there are fish offshore. At times they hunt here, but mostly you will see them resting at Seal Bend, as shown below.

Near Seal Bend, large gatherings of browns are not unusual.

The other and very unique set of organisms that visit the slough are deep water- open ocean- planktonic species. They are pulled in by currents and tides from the very deep water of the Monterey canyon, which starts just off of Moss Landing. This is one of the few sites in North America where deep water is found close to shore- the canyon is over a thousand feet deep a scant mile from shore. If you hang out in the main channel during a flood (approaching high) tide you may see organisms only found in deep water-things like salps, or jellies of many varieties.

Low tides open a window into invertebrates- kelp crabs, nudibranchs, and other inhabitants of eel grass beds including isopods, snails and small fish can be spotted if you are observant. You can see the slough’s hidden inhabitants here. You’ll see otters eating clams and crabs too.

The slough also gets exotics- below are a few images that illustrate this. The flamingo was an assumed escapee, he hung around for a few weeks in 2009. The Stellar’s sea lion visited in 2011, and the last image is of a humpback taken just outside the shipping channel in November of 2011, the Highway One bridge is in the background. Some old hands have seen transient (mammal eating) orcas spy hop at the seals on the visitors dock from the channel too. Lastly, if you visit the slough in December you may catch a fleeting glimpse of the illusive Christmas seal, to see him click here.

Stellar's sea lion with young California sea lions.

Flamingo with gulls and cormorants.

Taken from the bay looking back into the slough, the bridge and channel markers are visible.

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