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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Monterey Bay 1: Elkhorn Slough, Kayaks, and Muir

A pelican's view / Of Elkhorn Slough

“Whack!” I stopped paddling. Yes, there he was, not 20 feet away. A sea otter on his back in the water, having just whacked a clam against a rock on his belly. “What?” he seemed to ask as he stared back. “You never seen an otter use a rock?”

As a matter of fact, I hadn’t. My buddy Al and I had seen maybe 50 sea otters on our paddle into Elkhorn Slough off Monterey Bay, but the famous example of tool-use had eluded us—till now. I gazed slack-jawed at my furry friend, until he tired of my poor manners, took a last bite of clam, and flopped over and swam away.

I groaned as I resumed paddling. I’d been fighting an early (to me) onshore wind for nearly an hour, after having over-enthusiastically sailed several miles with the tide into the slough. Convinced my arms were going to fall off any stroke now, I consoled myself by thinking of my new bronze bust of John Muir sitting on my bookshelf back home, and how Saint John had made today possible for Al and myself.

The Slough, an ancient river valley that had dried up with a shift in the San Andreas fault inland and then filled with seawater as the oceans rose at the end of the last Ice Age, is an arm of the sea stretching 7 miles inland and 700 feet wide or so at its mouth. Small compared to the Eastern U.S. coast salt marshes and the Florida Everglades, Elkhorn Slough like them is incredibly productive biologically.

Relatively shallow, calm water, ample sunshine, and nutrients feeding in from both the sea (twice daily with the tides) and the surrounding uplands all conspire to give salt marshes among the highest primary productivity of all the planet’s ecosystems, tied with the more-famous tropical rain forests.

In Elkhorn Slough, the central waterway is especially rich with nutrients during spring days such as Al and I visited on, the coastal wind patterns pushing water offshore and pulling up nutrient-rich cold water from the mile-deep, 25-mile long Monterey Canyon nearby. Dinoflagellates and diatoms bloom prodigiously. And oh yes, the stringy green algae Enteromorpha, which clung to our paddles with every stroke. All photosynthesizing at a rapid clip.

Unlike many ecosystems, the bulk of this primary productivity doesn’t go directly to grazing herbivores, but rather dies and enters the detritus/decomposer pathways, where bacteria and protozoa experience their own bloom. So the slough’s waters are brown and murky, thick with chunks of decomposing plant material as well as the bacteria and protozoa, a nutritous soup which the mud-dwelling filter feeders feast on: the clams, crabs, shrimp, and various worms, which occur in the thousands in a square foot (!) of mud on the flats exposed at low tide.

These animals in turn support the upper trophic levels the slough is more famous for: a diversity of fishes (halibut, ling cod, Pacific sardines) and another level up, the leopard sharks, birds (brown pelicans, cormorants, egrets, loons, Western grebes) and mammals (California Sea lions, harbor seals, and my friend the sea otter). We found the three mammals surprisingly challenging to distinguish as they swam along the waterway with only their snouts above water, as they did by the dozens, to our great thrill. A good look when they were close to our kayaks revealed the abrupt high forehead of the sea lions, and the sea otters were obvious if they were lollygagging along on their backs.

Hauled up on the surrounding mudflats, the sea lions bark a lot, and the harbor seals continuously utter a loud, gutteral sound half-way between moaning and vomiting. Well, actually closer to vomiting. Which was what I nearly did when I kayaked close to several hundred sea lions jostling for space near the mouth of the slough, which is Moss Landing harbor, home of 400 fishing boats—and one dock of sea lions. I enthusiastically glided in to experience close-up the glory of sea lions—until I was hit by the incredible stench of all those fish-eating and wind-breaking animals piled atop each other. I made an abrupt U-turn and paddled furiously away, having learned something about sea lions and their aggregations.

Our morning on Elkhorn Slough was glorious, full of birds and mammals. We passed bird-watchers with a spotting scope on a peninsula just ocean-side of an egret rookery, near the spot where the current North American record for species seen in a day had been set in 1983 on a spring day like today: 116 species of birds, drawn by the slough's incredible productivity.

Because we were there at high tide, the expansive mud flats flanking the waterway were covered, but we knew that below our kayaks lurked thousands of gaper and gem clams, mud and lined shore crabs, and the burrows of fat innkeeper worms (yes, that’s their name) and ghost shrimp. And within the tangles of Enteromorpha green algae and Gracilaria red algae crept 10-pound sea hares up to a foot long—one of the largest shell-less molluscs this side of squid and octopi. Al led us up one of the narrow tidal creeks twisting into the surrounding marsh, dominated by the salt-tolerant pickleweed (Salicornia) from which we flushed dozens of nesting shorebirds before we back-paddled our return to the waterway.

And Muir? Elkhorn Slough is part of the 4,000 square-nautical-mile Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, America’s second largest marine sanctuary (only the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve is larger). These marine sanctuaries were established from the same impetus that earlier gave rise to America’s unique National Park system. The spark behind that impetus was John Muir, whose writings and lobbying efforts were the critical touch that brought to fruition the labors and plans of hundreds of other conservationists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, men and women who loved natural places and were determined to preserve the best of them from commercial exploitation and destruction.

I was at the John Muir National Historic Site at Muir’s old home in Martinez on April 26, when they jointly celebrated Muir’s birthday (April 21) and Earth Day (April 22). Many hundreds of kids and adults crowded Muir’s preserved home and the orchards around it, with half-a-hundred kiosks representing everything from sculptors of Muir busts and Garden clubs to various National Parks of Northern California (there are lots, including Muir Woods north of San Francisco) and even Muir himself—or a very convincing impersonator, national park ranger Frank Helling, complete with bushy beard, Scot accent, and endless entertaining tales.

So as a pleasantly-tired Al and I strapped our kayaks atop my Subaru Forester, I thought of the warm, festive feeling that had pervaded Muir’s home and orchard that day. I thought of the love of Muir and the natural world that animated the hundreds of good folks there, and led to the creation of our country’s national parks and marine sanctuaries. I thought of Will and Karen Pettee, from whom I purchased (at a very reasonable price, from www.wjpstudios.com) the wonderful bust of Saint John now gracing my bookshelf back home.

And, to be honest, I thought of the lunch Al and I were about to eat at Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery in Moss Landing harbor, where the tastiest sand dabs and calamari steak known to mankind are served.

Does it get any better than all this?

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