Take Monterey, for instance. It’s noted for lush valleys, dramatic coastal scenery, golf courses (there are more than 25), and wine tasting (Monterey County is the largest producer of premium wine grapes in North America), but it is much more than that. It’s a mecca for animal lovers, too.
Situated two hours south of San Francisco, Monterey seems eons away from the hustle and bustle of big-city life, but it scores highly with everything most travelers desire: bike paths, hiking trails, opportunities to enjoy outdoor activities, shopping malls, movie theaters and so much more. In this case, “more” includes legendary Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row—and all that their shops and restaurants have to offer.
Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the area’s biggest attractions, showcases the abundant marine life and habitats of the bay. More than 1.7 million visitors push through the turnstiles each year to view the strange and colorful marine plants and animals that live there. Visitors marvel at the Outer Bay Wing, with its one-million-gallon tank displaying animals of the open ocean—including prized giant Pacific bluefin tuna, the only giant tuna on exhibit outside of Japan. Some of the tunas weigh several hundred pounds each. Other Outer Bay residents include sea turtles, sharks and barracuda. Additional aquarium highlights include penguins, jellies, sea otters, a giant kelp forest three stories high, and exhibits where you can see and touch sea life.
Whale watching is something to enjoy all year long along the Central Coast, with different species taking center stage at various times. Look for gray whales migrating through in winter and early spring. Sporting the longest migration of any mammal, gray whales travel nearly 6,000 miles from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to the birthing and breeding lagoons of Baja California and back again.
From April through November, keep an eye out for the most acrobatic of all whales—the humpback. These whales lob their tails, slap their flippers and complete breaches where they hoist the better part of their bodies fully out of the water. Blue whales, the largest mammals on Earth, show up in the summer months, usually in pairs or small groups. Orcas and other dolphins can be seen year-round. In addition to the bottlenose dolphin of Flipper fame, visitors may see Pacific white-sided dolphins, common dolphins, Dall’s porpoises, harbor porpoises and more. Fortunate visitors may also spy leatherback sea turtles between late June and September.
Whale-watching trips led by professional marine biologists and naturalists are offered year-round by Monterey Bay Whale Watch. Other chartered whale-watching tours are available from Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey and 20 miles north at Moss Landing.
Moss Landing is a quaint, coastal fishing village known for its fresh seafood, coastal wetlands and antiques. It’s also an area that attracts birders and wildlife watchers who come to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Reserve. Visit and you’ll see why Monterey County was named “Birdiest County in North America” by the American Birding Association.
We toured the nearly seven-mile-long slough with Captain Yohn Gideon, enjoying the view from the Elkhorn Slough Safari, a 27-foot pontoon boat. Although tours typically last two hours, our excursion stretched an hour longer because we ventured out with folks from the Audubon Society on their annual Christmas bird count. (More than 350 species of birds have been observed in the slough, and the area continually ranks in the top ten for number of bird species in the Audubon Christmas counts.)
We felt as though we were living a true-life adventure as we explored over 3,000 acres of marsh and tidal flats. In addition to sea otters and harbor seals, we saw 68 species of birds. According to Captain Gideon, California sea lions also cruise up the slough, though they weren’t around during our trip.
In addition to the animals we observed, we learned the area is home to more than 400 species of invertebrates and 80 species of fish. At least six rare, threatened or endangered animals use the slough and surrounding areas, including sea otters, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, least terns, clapper rails and Santa Cruz long-toed salamanders.
Although sea otters are found here year-round, spring is a good time to see them. Sea otters are amusing to watch as they spend their days grooming their fur, cracking shells on rocks positioned on their tummies, feeding, and often you’ll find them anchored to offshore kelp strands while they rest and sleep. In fact, you can often see sea otters, seals and sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf, the Municipal Wharf in downtown Monterey and Cannery Row.
Before heading offshore, there’s one more thing to be sure to do—visit the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, just five minutes from Cannery Row. Not only is the museum free, but it also offers a glimpse at the diverse plant and animal life of Monterey County and Monterey Bay. In addition, there’s a gift shop and a native plant garden.
Monterey’s entire shoreline is embraced by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the largest and deepest of the nation’s marine sanctuaries. Stretching north to near San Francisco and south to Cambria, the sanctuary extends from the high tide line to an average of 30 miles offshore. It covers an area the size of the state of Connecticut—more than 5,300 square miles—and conceals an underwater canyon twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Home to 226 recorded shipwrecks, the preserve harbors 26 threatened or endangered species.
Explore Monterey, both from the land and from the sea, and you’ll no doubt admit that those sea otters, while charming, are also real estate savvy. They know a good place when they see it.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.