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Hello from Monterey, CA. I drove up the coast from San Diego, visiting fellow Kossack David Atkins on the way up here. And I've ended up seeing tons and tons of what can be called "charismatic megafauna." That is, large, adorable wild animals.

Fortunately, I had my camera.

Also, here's a thought that comes to mind as I look through these pictures: I saw all of these animals for free, and even a whale watch in San Diego costs less than a ticket to Sea World. And there are no ethical questions about any of these animals because they are wild (as opposed to Sea World and their killer whales).

Sea Otter

I began my drive in San Diego, but did not begin sightseeing til I got up to Carpinteria, just past Ventura. There, I saw pelicans and harbor seals (pictured) and dolphins (no photo).

Pelicans

Harbor Seals

My next stop was near Hearst Castle, at Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery. The best time to see them is in the winter, when they breed and mate, because the entire population gathers on the beach. This time of year, there are only females molting and some juveniles. They come to shore and fast for four weeks while molting. Juveniles and males come back to molt at other times of the year. There were still some juveniles around when I visited, including some young males who were play-fighting, honing their skills for when they do it for real as adults in order to gain access to mating with females by establishing dominance.

Choir Practice

Elephant Seals

Lazy Day at the Beach

A Disagreement Among Friends

Elephant Seal

Molting Mama Close-up

Molting Mama

Napping with a Friend

My next stop was in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park near Big Sur. I did not plan to stop but I saw a sign that said McWay Canyon, and I took an educated guess that this was the right place to find McWay Falls. And it was!

McWay Falls

McWay Falls

McWay Falls

Finally I arrived in Monterey. Your wildlife experience in Monterey likely begins as an auditory one. Get anywhere near the ocean and you hear sea lions barking, whether you can see them or not. You'll also see tons of sea birds and harbor seals.

Harbor Seal

You can also see sea otters off the coast of Monterey. In fact, if you're looking, you'd be hard pressed NOT to see them.

Sea Otter

Sea Otter

Sea Otter

Sea Otter

Most. Adorable. Animal. EVER.

They congregate in groups called "rafts" and mostly just hang out by floating on their backs. Instead of blubber, they rely on their thick fur coats, which they meticulously groom, to stay warm. The outer guard hairs keep the fur underneath dry and full of air pockets. They also have very fast metabolisms, requiring an awful lot of calories each day to make up for the calories burned staying warm in the cold water. Because their paws are not well-insulated, they often rest with their paws above the water to keep them warm.

I just spent about 30 minutes watching one little guy do what otters do. Dive for about a minute, get a shellfish or fish, resurface, eat it while floating on his back, and repeat. Again and again.

Most of these cuties live in Alaska, but a few thousand live in California. They were once hunted to the brink of extinction for their fur and the population is still recovering. In the Monterey Bay Aquarium, you can see several sea otters who came there as rescues when they were babies. The resident otters now serve as surrogate mothers for other rescue otters. Best of all, you can get right up close to them.

Otters use rocks and shells as tools to open shellfish and they are also unique in that they catch fish with their paws, not their mouths. The aquarium initially gave its otters shellfish with the shells on, but the otters figured out they could bang the shells against the glass of their tank to open them, scratching up the glass in the process. So now they get their food with the shells removed.

If all of this isn't enough for you, get on a boat and go see more. Common dolphins are a dime a dozen off the coast of California, and they love to swim near boats. Gray whales migrate past California as they go between Alaska and Baja California every year from about December to April. At other times of the year (although I don't think with such regularity) you might also see humpback, blue, fin, and minke whales and bottlenose dolphins. I saw a few gray whales in late March, but did not take my camera on the boat with me.

I hope you enjoyed my pics as much as I enjoyed taking them. These critters need us to protect them from habitat loss and pollution. It's so wonderful to be able to stand on the shore and see so much, but we have to work to keep it that way.

Originally posted to Jill Richardson on Fri May 16, 2014 at 10:38 PM PDT.

Also republished by Shutterbugs.

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