MONTEREY BAY PINNIPEDS and OTTER
|Monterey Bay is exceptional for its wealth of pelagic mammals other
than cetaceans. It is the only place in the world where five species of
pinnipeds (seals and sea-lions) may be found most years, not to mention
a pelagic otter. I enjoy watching sea otters lying on their backs, feeding
leisurely on crab or abalone, to dive 'just in time' to avoid the pounding
surf about to engulf them (photo right; © Don Roberson).
Barking California Sea Lions are a constant in fall and winter in Monterey,
and I hear them from my backyard hot tub when conditions are right. Harbor
seals are common attractions along the rocky shore and in Elkhorn Slough.
The other pinnipeds, though, require either trips to breeding colonies
just north or south of Monterey County (Northern Elephant Seal and Steller's
Sea Lion) or luck on offshore boat trips. I've never seen a Northern Fur
Seal from shore.
Short photo introductions to the various species follow.
All photos are from Monterey Bay or nearby (Elephant Seals from
Año Nuevo Pt.)
Photo above © Ronald L. Branson. Photos below ©
Sea Otter Enhydra lutris nearly went extinct due
to hunting for their fur in former centuries, but today they are a star
attraction along the shores of Monterey Bay. They are easily seen in Elkhorn
Slough, around the Monterey Peninsula, and down the Big Sur coast. They
are popular attractions at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Local populations
have been studied intensively, and much information is available on line.
There is a local Sea Otter society with a gift shop on Cannery Row.
Photo below © Ronald L. Branson
California Sea Lion Zalophus californianus is a common
visitor in fall and winter from Channel Island breeding populations, and
in some years a few remain through spring and summer. Sea lions are easily
identified by their external ears (seals show no ears) and by their raucous
barking. When present, they commandeer unused boats in the harbor, buoys,
and the Coast Guard jetty. They can be very aggressive off Fisherman's
Wharf. Our visiting population is almost entirely composed of males; females
don't venture this far north.
Photos below © Don Roberson
Steller's Sea Lion Eumetopias jubatus is an occasional
visitor in fall and winter, usually among the many California Sea Lions
on the Coast Guard jetty in Monterey harbor. They are larger and paler
than California Sea Lions (upper left beast in photo, left). Many California
Sea Lions become quite pale as they dry, but Steller's retains its blonde
color even underwater. They also have more massive necks and body. These
were once abundant in Alaskan colonies but numbers have declined so much
in recent decades that they are now listed as "threatened" on the Endangered
Species list. A small population breeds on Año Nuevo Island, just
north of Monterey Bay.
Photo below offshore Yankee Pt. 9 Feb 2003 © Martin Meyers
Harbor Seal Phoca vitulina is commonly seen along
the shoreline and in Elkhorn Slough. They come in a variety of colors;
all have dog-like heads without external ears. They enjoy basking in the
sun at low tides. Pups are born on local beaches.
Photo below © Don Roberson
Northern Fur Sea Callorhinus ursinus is almost entirely
restricted to oceanic waters in Monterey Bay and offshore, and almost never
seen near land. Small numbers migrate from Alaskan breeding grounds in
fall and winter to forage in deep, pelagic waters; they are presumably
excluded from nearshore areas by the larger California Sea Lions. At sea,
they are identified by the combination of long ears, long whiskers, more
pointed snout, and the habitat of dozing on the surface in a 'jug handle'
position, with the hind flippers and front flippers pulled out of the water
to touch each other. They were hunted voraciously for their thick fur in
past centuries, and numbers have never totally rebounded.
Northern Elephant Seal Mirounga angustrirostris is
the star attraction at their breeding colonies just north of Monterey Bay
(Año Nuevo Pt.; photo, right) and just south (near San Simeon, San
Luis Obispo Co.). Huge males battle for mating rights to harems of smaller
females. Away from these colonies, elephant seals are found offshore, where
they routinely dive to depths of 2000 ft. in search of squid, rays and
small sharks. We rarely see them on boat trips, and once they sense the
boat's presence, they invariable dive and never reappear nearby.
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Page created 1-7 Dec 2002, revised 27 Feb 2003