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Marine Mammals


Harbor Seals

Harbor Seal

The animal I associate most with kayaking is the harbor seal. A paddle in the north Bay or at Point Reyes seems incomplete without a curious, but timid, pair of big dark eyes poking up out of the water behind my boat. Harbor seals are the cigar-like spotted animals often seen basking on sandbanks or even floating docks near Sausalito. Generally quiet, harbor seals can bark and growl, but they rarely climb over each other like sea lions. They are found in the North Pacific from the sands of Baja to the ice floes of Alaska and the Bering Sea. They are common in the western part of the Bay and abundant at Pt. Reyes which has a population of several thousand. Unfortunately, in recent years the population in south-central Alaska and the Aleutians has declined 50% paralleling the decline in Steller Sea Lions. The causes are not known, but overfishing for prey species is suspected.

Male harbor seals grow to 140kg, about twice the size of the females. The animals mainly court and breed in water, the males often slapping the water with their flippers in display. Harbor seal pups are very precocious, swimming within hours of birth. In southern California, adult harbor seals dive on average from 3-7 minutes (max = 27 minutes) at depths of 17-87 m (max = 446m). Generally quiet and timid, they are easily spooked into the water. This behavior is stressful to the animals, particularly when they have pups. Accordingly, most pupping areas in Tomales Bay, Drakes Bay, the mouth of the Russian River, Bolinas Bay and around Monterey are closed to kayaks during the pupping season (late March–June). Please be a good coinhabitant of this environment and respect the closures of pupping areas. Refer to the Off-Limits section for details of closures.

Sea Lions

Sea Lion

Sea lions differ from harbor seals (and elephant seals) by having long front flippers which they use to "fly" through the water. In contrast, harbor and elephant seals have short front flippers and swim by moving their rear flippers side to side.

California sea lion (Zalophus californianus). These sea lions remind me of fraternity boys - rambunctious, noisy, crowded together, highly social, stay-up-all-night partying, and fairly insensitive to complaints of camping BASKers trying to sleep. On the other hand, they are full of energy, friendly, and exciting companions. They are most easy to see at Pier 39 in San Francisco and at the breakwater in Monterey.

The Bay Area is at the northern end of the California sea lion's range which extends down to Baja and as far as the Galapagos. The vast majority of the sea lions we see are males, and the abundance of sea lions is highest after the breeding season. Adult males, with their squared off forehead, can grow to 390kg; female sea lions reach only 100kg. They feed at relatively shallow depth (26-74m) in short dives (average = 2 minutes), although they can dive to 375+m in dives lasting 8 minutes.

Steller sea lion (Eumotopias jubatus). Much less familiar to most of us is this much larger species. Again there is a large amount of sexual dimorphism, but here the female Steller, at up to 350 kg, is about the same size as an adult male California's, and the male Steller sea lions are huge, reaching up to 1120 kg and 3.2 m in length. Beside their larger size, they can be told by their shorter faces and tan-reddish brown fur (when dry). The Bay Area is toward the southern end of this species' range, although small numbers breed on San Miguel in the Channel Islands, at Ano Nuevo Island and South Farallon. As one goes north toward Oregon and points further north, these become the only sea lions and are the ones encounted in Puget Sound, Vancouver Island, etc. Steller tend to be more common in summer than winter.

Since 1990, all populations of Steller sea lions have been classified as "threatened". In April, 1997, the western population was officially classified as "endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Elephant Seals

These wonderful animals are so huge that they barely acknowledge our presence. Recent research has shown that during their migrations as far north as the Aleutian Islands, the seals will dive almost continually to depths of over 350 m and sometimes over 1,500 meters on dives lasting 70 minutes! Between dives, they only spend 5-7 minutes on the surface. Given their brief time at the surface, they are arguably the most "marine" of the mammals.

So rare at the end of the 19th century that museum collectors were sent to remote islands off northern Mexico to collect the last few before they went extinct, elephant seals have rebounded amazingly with a population now over 160,000. Of course, the classic place to see these animals is Año Nuevo State Reserve between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. Home to 5,000+ northern elephant seals, harbor seals, great white sharks, Año Nuevo is a place of great natural beauty. Reservations are required to see the elephant seals in winter, but unbeknownst to many, seals are also around, in lesser numbers, from April through August to molt. During summer no reservations are needed to visit.

The elephant seal population has grown so much they have filled up not only Año Nuevo, but also South Farallon Island and over 1,000 of them have been wintering at Point Reyes. At Pt. Reyes, they are nearly all found on the outer coast under the lighthouse. They are very hard to see from land because of the steep and dangerous cliffs, but can be seen from the water. Recently a few (15-60) have also wintered in the northwest corner of Drake's Bay. The easiest way to see them is to go to the Fish Docks parking lot and follow the trail north for about 150 yards.

In the summer the seals are going through an intense period of molt and minimize their activity. The heightened blood flow in the skin to grow hair follicles is inconsistent with large amounts of time in the cold water. In winter, they are far more active. Be aware: these are very strong and large animals. Although not normally aggressive, a frustrated bachelor may be suffering from "testosterone poisoning" or self pity (if there is a difference). I witnessed a plastic Aquaterra Sea Lion with four large holes in the rear where an elephant seal had chomped it. And be even more aware, juvenile elephant seals are the favorite prey of great white sharks, and where the elephant seals are, the sharks are sure to follow.

Sea Otters

Sea Otter

Endlessly fascinating and fun to watch, sea otters are easy to watch from sea kayaks. Otters were historically hunted by Aleuts from kayaks, first for their own uses, then for Russians who enserfed the Aleuts, and finally by Americans who contracted with Russians to rent Aleut hunters. Aleuts were even transported to the Channel Islands to hunt otters. Over 8,000 otters were killed by Russians in San Francisco Bay between 1811-14.

Recovering from near extinction in the early part of the this century, the population of otters off the central California coast has rebounded well, but may be stalled at current levels. In early December 1996, U.S. Geological Survey scientists reported that 2,019 sea otters were counted during a November 1996 census. This was almost 8% fewer than the 2,190 animals counted in the fall 1995 census. It was not certain whether the population is declining or whether, due to poor weather, the 1996 census missed more animals than the 1995 census. A peak census count of 2,377 animals was recorded in spring 1995. The spring 1996 count was lower than the spring 1995 census, and a total of 145 sea otter carcasses have been recorded during the first 9 months of 1996 - in excess of the average of 80 carcasses.

Dolphins and Porpoises


The central California cost is home to an amazing array of dolphins and porpoises—I have seen seven different species in one day. Unfortunately, for kayakers, most of these occur more than a mile or two from shore. On pelagic birdwatching trips out of Monterey (the best place in my experience to see dolphins), one appears to have a 90+% chance of seeing one of more species any given day.

Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). "Flipper"! This is generally thought of as a warm water species common in southern California and Baja and other warm U.S. waters. However, in the 1982/83 El Nino a small population of bottlenose dolphins found its way to Monterey Bay and has stayed ever since. I have not seen them, but there are now over 100 animals which are seen regularly in the northern part of Monterey Bay. This species is often right in the surf zone. My paddling experiences with them in Florida are that they generally ignore kayaks or are mildly curious. I had a great time watching one surf waves.

Harbor porpoise (Phocoena phoca). These very small, dark animals are around in the inshore waters, but they are very tough to see. They are usually solitary, will not bowride on a boat, and tend to avoid boats. When surfacing they create no splash, and their dark color makes them hard to pick out against the waves. Can easily be confused with a small sea lion, except for the small triangular dorsal fin. This species has been hit hard around the world due to gill net fisheries and coastal pollution.

Common Dolphin

Offshore dolphins and porpoises. Recently the most abundant off-shore dolphin has been the common dolphin (pictured to the right). These dolphins were recently split into two species—the long-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus capensis) and the short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis). Both species are found in Monterey Bay. These are the classic dolphins found in mosaics from Crete 1200 B.C. Schools of 1,000+ of these dolphins can be seen in Monterey Bay.

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

The Pacific white-sided dolphin (Lagenorynchus obliquidens, left) is one of the most abundant and energetic of the dolphins in the area. They can occur in small pods or groups of 1,000 or more. "Lags" love to bowride and generally are quite energetic, often performing arial leaps.

Venturing out over the Monterey Canyon one can see Dall's porpoises (Phocenoides dalli). These muscular animals may be the fastest of the dolphins reaching speeds of more than 20 knots. They love to bowride until they get bored and take off as if the boat were going backwards. When moving fast, they break the surface to breath with a big, distinctive splash ("roostertail") while showing very little of their bodies above water. These roostertails are a giveaway that these cold water porpoises are present.



Yes, we have orcas (Orcinus orca) right here in central California. There are about 3-4 sightings per month in Monterey Bay, but usually they are 5-10 miles offshore. However, there have been sightings inside Monterey Bay. Your best bet is probably off Point Pinos when the gray whale mothers are migrating north in April and the orcas come in to try to kill the young whale calves. A word of caution: the orcas off the coast here resemble the "transient" orcas of Puget Sound in their small pod size, and strong focus on killing marine mammals. These are not the fat, mellow salmon-eaters of the Inside Passage, but aggressive, enormously powerful predators. There are no documented attacks of orcas on kayakers, but some of us suspect that the "white shark" killing of two kayakers off Oxnard several years ago may have been orcas. Orcas off California have shown no hesitation to attack prey ranging in size from sea lions to adult 70+' blue whales. Be careful.

Other dolphins that can be seen on pelagic trips include the Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus), a very large dolphin with much white scarring on the adults, and the very strange northern right whale dolphin (Lissodelphis borealis), a long, slender black dolphin without any dorsal fin. From a distance the latter are often mistaken for sea lions.


Gray whale (Eschrictius robustus). This is the whale most people think of, but the least interesting whale to my mind. Each winter more than 20,000 gray whales migrate south along the coast passing here from Christmas through February, then returning north from February through April. Best places to see gray whales are elevated points that stick out into the sea from Pt. Reyes north or Ano Nuevo south. Between these points, the gray whales head offshore around the Farallons, and are only uncommonly seen from San Francisco or the Marin headlands. Kayaking with gray whales has become an increasingly popular activity, although not a safe activity in my mind. Be aware: that gray whales do not echo-locate and there is danger to kayakers from whales accidentally surfacing under or near kayakers, then being startled upon discovering the kayakers. If you must kayak around gray whales, I recommend making noise, e.g. by banging the hull of your kayak to let the whales know you are there.

Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). Without a doubt, central California is the best place to see blue whales in the world. The population here has recently been estimated at 2,000 animals - more than in the entire Southern Hemisphere. The best time of year to see them is when the krill is abundant which is late summer through November or early December. Although these animals are usually found 5-10 miles off-shore, twice I have seen them within 50 yards of the Coast Guard breakwater in Monterey! The second time, the 70 foot animal swam along the Pacific Grove shoreline about five yards outside the kelp line! Blue whales can be distinguished by their vast size, gunmetal gray color, and tiny dorsal fin very far back on body. Blue whales will occasionally raise their flukes out of the water to a plane parallel to the water surface.

Minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata).These are the smallest of the baleen whales, little cousins to the giant blue whale. The minke is the species subject to the recent controversy about whaling in Norway and Japan. These animals are not that much larger than an elephant seal. They tend to avoid ships and follow erratic paths. Minkes are found in the summer, particularly in Monterey and Carmel Bays, and often within 100 yards of shore. Minkes are distinguished by their small size, relatively narrow back and high dorsal fin for a baleen whale.

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Although humpbacks are not as common as blue whales in this area, there are still quite a few of them that spend later summer and fall off the California coast. I have never seen them closer than 5 miles off-shore, but others have seen them from shore. Humpbacks are black in color, arch their back steeply when diving, and often raise their flukes vertically in the air perpendicular to the surface when "sounding" on a longer dive.