“(People) could get hurt if they get too close. They also could have the thrill of a lifetime."
-- University of California Santa Cruz marine biology professor Don Croll,San Francisco Chronicle, 11/2/11
Those of us lucky enough to live on California’s Central Coast are spoiled. We take for granted the diverse ocean wildlife off our shores. Walking on the beach, paddling a kayak or surfboard, even sipping a glass of wine from a beachfront café, we think nothing of sea otters floating by in the kelp, pelicans diving for their dinner, or dolphins and sea lions leaping through the waves. But the pod of humpback whales cavorting just offshore of Santa Cruz last month awed even the most seasoned Central Coast wildlife watchers.
The whales made state and national news, and an amateur video showing two feeding whales lunge a few feet from a bikini-clad surfer has since gone viral – reminding all of us of the importance of staying a responsible distance from the animals, both for our safety and theirs. A couple of weeks ago, I cancelled a bunch of conference calls, cut work and rented a kayak. It was indeed the thrill of a lifetime.
While the humpbacks have now moved offshore, the parade of sea life that swims and flies along our coast during the seasonal migration from summer to winter feeding grounds has just begun. Scientists call the waters of Monterey Bay an “oceanic Serengeti” due to the number and variety of animals cruising by. Much of this ocean wildlife was historically hunted or fished to very low levels, but more recent decades have seen tremendous recovery of many species, offering both hope for our ocean’s future and unparalleled opportunities to enjoy wildlife.
November typically brings thousands of gray whales headed south on their more than 6,000 mile migration from summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas to calving grounds in the warm-water lagoons of Mexico's Baja peninsula. Book your trip on a whale watching boat now, or plan a visit to Point Reyes, Big Sur, or Davenport, north of Santa Cruz, where you can often see whales cruise by from the bluffs overlooking the sea.
While others book seats at the Nutcracker, a holiday tradition for many California families is a trip to the beach to watch 5,000-pound male elephant seals fight bloody battles. After being hunted nearly to extinction for their oil-rich blubber, elephant seals have made a remarkable comeback under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Elephant seals range from Mexico to Alaska in search of food, and spend 80 percent of their life in the open sea. From December to March they can be seen hauled out on California beaches at Point Reyes, Año Nuevo and Piedras Blancas where they mate, fight and give birth.
Winter is also a great time for birdwatching. Many seabirds spend their winters enjoying the relatively mild climate and reliable food supply of Monterey Bay. January brings murres, auklets, and other open-ocean birds in from their normal offshore habitat to calmer coastal waters. Boaters in Monterey Bay or further north around the Farallon Islands sometimes see more exotic species like Laysan albatross.
California’s astonishing variety of ocean wildlife provides endless opportunities for residents and visitors alike to enjoy the beauty and wonder of nature in her full glory. Areas like Monterey Bay, Point Reyes, and the Farallon Islands have been set aside as state marine protected areas and are included in national marine sanctuaries to help protect and restore the abundant nature that delights local residents and visitors from around the world, year after year.
Right now, California is working to expand its marine protected area system through the Marine Life Protection Act. This landmark effort brings fishermen, scientists, conservationists, business leaders and recreational ocean users together to map out a statewide network of ocean refuges that will keep special places from Del Norte County to San Diego full of ocean life.
As the days get colder and the rains begin, it’s tempting to light a fire in the fireplace and curl up on the couch with a good book and wait for spring. Instead, grab your raincoat and some binoculars and hit the coast. You may just have the thrill of a lifetime.