IF YOU ARE MORE inclined to travel back roads and explore undiscovered locales, a visit to Elkhorn Slough might be in order.

Located just across from Moss Landing, adjacent to the power plant and visible from Highway 1, Elkhorn Slough is one of California's largest wetlands, part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve. Winding inland some seven miles, this combination estuary and slough is a significant feeding and resting place for a wide array of marine mammals, waterfowl and shorebirds. In fact, it is one of the top five spots in the country for migratory birds, with some 350 species stopping over for a stay on their travels.

A flock of American White Pelicans takes flight.
A flock of American White Pelicans takes flight. (Yohn Gideon)

A sampling of the array of wildlife can be viewed from a pontoon boat called the Elkhorn Slough Safari that goes out daily from Moss Landing. The 27-foot, open-air, flat-bottom vessel, owned and operated by Yohn Gideon, carries 22 passengers. The tours are narrated by youthful guides who, aided by the sharpeyed Capt. Yohn, as he is called, point out otters, harbor seals, sea lions, herons, cormorants, red-breasted mergansers, long-billed curlews, egrets and many more examples of wildlife during the 2-hour, 10-mile round trip. In fact, passengers are enlisted to help count various species, data that is used by the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, the Audubon Society and the California State Department of Fish and Game.


As the boat moves quietly out of the harbor on a morning excursion, while pelicans and seagulls screech and soar overhead, our exuberant guide, Kelsi Rey, educates passengers on the distinctions between harbor seals and their larger cousins the sea lions, both of which can be viewed in plenitude swimming and lolling about on various surfaces. Before we've even entered the slough we encounter a raft (the technical term for a group of otters, we're informed), 27 in all, which represents about 1 percent of the total population, according to Capt.

A California Sea Otter in Elkhorn Slough.
A California Sea Otter in Elkhorn Slough. (VERN FISHER/The Herald)
Yohn. "There are very few places where you can see as many sea otters in one place," he says. 

We learn about the otter's feeding preferences (the aforementioned crustaceans and bivalves, among others), use of tools (rocks and an occasional wine bottle), how they keep warm (grooming to fluff their thick pelts and keeping their extremities above water) and numerous other traits of these engaging creatures, which are still on the threatened species list, according to information from the Friends of the Sea Otters. Last year, there were some 3,000 otters documented on the California Coast. 

An elegant tern reflected in the water.
An elegant tern reflected in the water. (VERN FISHER/Herald file)

Even as they impart factual information, Kelsi and Capt. Yohn are scouting the water's surface, the skies and the shoreline, interrupting the rehearsed dialogue to point out newly sighted creatures, such as a well-concealed blue heron blending almost imperceptibly into the background, or a red-tailed hawk perched high up atop a power pole.       

Red knots at water’s edge.
Red knots at water's edge. (Yohn Gideon)

Yohn has been piloting these excursions since 1994. An officer in the Navy for eight years, he designed the boat himself so that it would be particularly stable and afford passengers good viewing. "I always wanted to have a business of my own, and hopefully have it outdoors and involve people, so it's been a dream come true," he says. "What makes it exciting for me is the people...A lot are repeat business, and we've become friends. People's reaction is what makes it exciting for me. As much as I've been up there, there's always something new that I haven't seen before." The Elkhorn Slough Safari leaves at various times of the day depending on the season, the tides and other factors known only to Capt.Yohn, so reservations are required.

A long-billed curlew
A long-billed curlew (Yohn Gideon)
 The boat can fill up as much as a week ahead of time, he warns.


Elkhorn Slough Safari

Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve
1700 Elkhorn Rd.
Watsonville, CA

Or by Land

If you prefer to explore the 1,400-acre Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve on foot, there are over five miles of trails that wind through woodlands, tidal creeks and freshwater marshes. A $2.50 day-use fee for adults is charged for walking the trails; children are free. A visitor center offers educational exhibits and other programs. The reserve and visitor center is open Wednesday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Decent-led tours are available on Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Reservations are not required for groups under six. An early birding walk is held the first Saturday of every month at 8:30 a.m. The reserve and visitor center are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.