Imagine the Grand Canyon a mile beneath the ocean, where pinnipeds, cetaceans and other marine mammals reign. This curious world, the deepest submarine canyon in North America, carves into the continental shelf within just a few hundred feet of the coastline of Monterey Bay.
The unfathomable Monterey Submarine Canyon is the nucleus of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the largest marine sanctuary in the United States. It is also a rare region of upwelling, with the deep upsurge of cold nutrient-rich water producing major blooms of plankton, the basis of the food chain for all marine mammals.
As humans with neither wet suits nor submarines, our safari to “The Serengeti of the Sea” began at the head of the submarine canyon in Moss Landing, where we boarded a tandem kayak and paddled inland through the Elkhorn Slough. The protected waters of Elkhorn Slough are considered one of the top ten birding spots in the United States, and one of the best places to observe sea otters.
The southern sea otter lacks an insulating layer of blubber, and is one of the smallest (and cutest) of marine mammals. To combat its cold water living environment, it has the densest fur in the animal kingdom and eats about 25% of its body weight each day. If I had the appetite of an otter, I would be consuming Big Macs at a rate of over 100 a day!
All around Monterey Bay, we spotted harbor seals, the most widely distributed species of pinniped. Agile and aerodynamic in water but awkward and sausage-looking on land, the seals are quieter and more petite than their unruly sea lion cousins.
Unafraid of humans, boisterous and chubby California sea lions love to haul-out onto coastal rocks and manmade jetties. They seem perfectly content snuggling together, until one encroaches on someone else’s sunny spot. These territorial disputes always lead to a lot of pushing, shoving, and booming verbal accusations.
In search of the largest of marine mammals, we set off from Moss Landing on a whale watching cruise. Before long, we reached the rich feeding grounds of the humpback whale. Dozens of humpbacks entertained us with blows of spray, graceful fluke displays, spanking pectoral slaps, and an especially impressive full breach about 50 feet astern.
Back on terra firma, we extended our study of marine mammals to the human species at the Monterey Beach Sportsfest. Here, in the sheltered bay waters, athletes competed in open-water swimming, Waterman challenges, and Stand-up Paddleboard (SUP) races. Despite the skill and experience of the participants, the human athletes seemed rather sluggish and sloppy as they splashed across the water.
Watching and comparing marine mammal species within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, it is obvious that the charming sea otter, elegant harbor seal, gregarious sea lion, and demonstrative humpback whale are happy and relaxed in these deep and productive waters. As for us humans, we have our own Grand Canyon in Arizona, where we are clearly more comfortable on foot or riding on the back of a burro.