Santa Cruz: Sea Otters and Sea Otter Classic

I told Greyson that all I wanted for my birthday was to see some otters. We ended up going to Santa Cruz, and the trip delivered!

The first sea otter we visited was the Sea Otter Classic.

Sea Otter Classic // tahoefabulous.com

The Sea Otter Classic is a massive bike festival and expo that takes place in Monterey Bay, California over a few days in mid-April. Greyson had great memories of attending the festival when he was younger, and we were excited to check it out. The only word I can use to describe Sea Otter is…overwhelming. Maybe people who are more experienced with massive expos would have gotten more out of it than I did, but there were so many booths and exhibits and things going on that it was hard to find anything I wanted to see. We also went on Saturday (the festival started on Thursday), so I don’t know if it was our random wandering or if the booths were already cleared out, but we didn’t score any swag. I did get a good deal on some new bike gloves and I ran into my friends from TAMBA. While I’m glad that I went at least one time in my life, I don’t feel the need to head back to Sea Otter next year.

We drank Sierra Nevada beer, ate some expensive teriyaki, watched some cyclocross, and then it was time for the main event of the day – Men’s Pro Dual Slalom.

sea otter 02

The Men’s Pro Dual Slalom race kicked off with a race between two tandem teams!

Dual Slalom isn’t a super popular race anymore, but it’s a super fun one to watch. Two bikers race head to head on identical courses full of features like berms, drops and jumps. The riders then switch tracks, and their times are combined. The slower rider is eliminated and the other moves on to the next round, until a winner is declared.

sea otter 03 sea otter 04 sea otter 05

As much as I love biking and all things related, I was even more excited for the next iteration of otters – actual live sea otters in the wild!

Elkhorn Slough // tahoefabulous.com

Greyson and I drove south from Santa Cruz to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve with one goal: to see some otters!

The Elkhorn Slough NERR is

“one of 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves established nationwide as field laboratories for scientific research and estuarine education. The Reserve is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The 1700-acre Reserve is a hub of activity and hosts programs that promote education, research, and conservation in Elkhorn Slough. The Visitor Center has award-winning exhibits that invite everyone to explore the Unseen Slough. There are five miles of trails that meander through beautiful oak woodlands, calm tidal creeks, and freshwater marshes. We offer tours on the weekends and special events throughout the year.”

More importantly, Elkhorn Slough is home to the largest population of California’s sea otters, a fact I learned by watching Saving Otter 501 (a PBS Nature Documentary, available to watch online here and via Netflix!) over and over.

saving otter 501

Picture from Saving Otter 501 found here.

California’s southern sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries, but a surviving population of around 50 was found off of Big Sur in 1938. The population has grown to nearly 2,000, many of which live in the protected Elkhorn Slough.

sea otter 07

Greyson and I didn’t really have any concrete plans for finding the sea otters, other than going to Elkhorn Slough, and potentially renting kayaks. We ended up just pulling into a beach parking lot on vague instructions from Greyson’s sister, and we immediately spotted otters! We were on a little spit of sand with a manmade breakwater that made a perfect spot for otter spotting.

sea otter 08

I only had my phone camera, so my photos aren’t great. Greyson got some great shots though, and made an adorable video that I already posted.

Photo by Greyson Howard
Photo by Greyson Howard

A highlight was definitely the two juvenile otters who wrestled near us for 15 or 20 minutes.

sea otter 10

The shot I got with my phone.

sea otter 11

The shot Greyson got with his camera. Ha!

I also loved this otter that floated contentedly while a fisherman and his dog worked on a boat nearby.

otters-and-sailboats-elkhorn

In addition to the dozens of otters frolicking about, the Elkhorn Slough was packed with other wildlife. We saw sea lions, harbor seals, cormorants, herons, and the ubiquitous Velella velella. If you’re in the Monterey or Santa Cruz area, I highly recommend a trip to the Elkhorn Slough. If you’re interested in the crucial conservation work they’re doing, you can learn more on their website, or become a member!

We did a few other fun things in the Santa Cruz area over the weekend. We hit up the Monterey Bay Aquarium just in time for the otter feeding and to visit the fluorescent-ly lit jellyfish:

sea otter 12

sea otter 13 sea otter 14

And we hit up Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing for some birthday beers just before we left town on Sunday. These weren’t my favorite beers of all time, and I probably won’t write up a whole review of the brewery. I did enjoy their Peoples Organic Coffee Porter and Devout Stout, and I loved their location with an outdoor beer garden and tap room.

sea otter 15

The whole weekend was a great way to celebrate my 31st birthday, and it will be hard to top next year!