Otterly Delightful

(C) Julie Boyd

Published on Trip Advisor

Australia may have some of the strangest animals in the world, but America surely has some of the most playful.

From dancing with dolphins in Florida to swimming with sea lions in California and playing hide and seek with chipmunks in Michigan, their creatures seem as fascinated by humans as we are by them.

The most playful of their animals, and possibly the cutest, are sea otters. And the best place to see them – Monterey Bay in California. Otters were once hunted to near extinction and it is due to the persistence of people like Margaret Wentworth Owings, often called the Jane Goodall of California, and the Friends of the Sea Otters, that these little guys have survived and thrived.

Driving from San Francisco towards the Monterey Peninsula, the entrance sign to Point Lobos, a State Park so popular that bookings are essential even for a day trip, states proudly ‘Sea Otters in Residence’ with the pamphlet you are handed beginning ‘The sea otter is without doubt the most observed and beloved marine mammal in this park.’

The Monterey Peninsula itself is full of wonderful surprises. One doubts whether tourism was on anyone’s mind when John Steinbeck came out in the mid-1940s with his famous fictional classic, “Cannery Row,” but that novel ultimately had the effect of turning the Monterey Peninsula into one of the most popular destinations for a Northern California vacation. Aspiring writers find real pleasure in being able to walk the same streets as Steinbeck, where the smell of fish from the sardine factories, has now been replaced by the great coffee and wonderful food on offer at cafes and restaurants; and souvenir and book shops now grace the old buildings. Thank goodness this is not somewhere developers have been allowed to destroy the heritage which brings millions of visitors a year.

It’s always an advantage having friends who live locally and can show you around an area. If they are heavily involved in their local community, so much the better. My dear friends are docents (helpers) at the famed Monterey Bay aquarium just down the road from Cannery Row. Financed by David Packard (of Hewlett Packard) for his marine biologist daughter, Julie, who is currently Executive Director of the aquarium, this is not only possibly the most incredible aquarium in the world, it also houses a crucially important research institute. Located right on the famed San Andreas faultline, there is a submarine canyon immediately off Monterey which drops sharply to 3,600metres, so the research institute has access to some very unusual deepwater creatures. This also makes the water extremely cold, so swimming is not really an option, though it is one of the premier scuba diving spots in the world. The most famous aspect of the Monterey aquarium is a wall of glass, more than three storeys high which enables a view into a giant kelp forest and the habitat this provides. Outside the aquarium, a favourite pastime is kayaking out among the otters, though knowing the depth of the water beneath can be slightly intimidating.
I was visiting Monterey to attend a conference which was being held at the Asilomar Center (American spelling) in Pacific Grove, just down the road. Arguably one of the best conference locations in the world, Asilomar consists of a series of log cabins, the largest of which has an open fire which spans the entire wall, and is the perfect location for a fireside chat or glass of good Californian red. Venturing outside you simply walk down to the beach, past wild deer grazing on berries along the path, to craggy rocks from which you can see otters frolicking. These delightful little creatures have a very endearing, and highly practical habit of rolling themselves in kelp to sleep or eat, belly up, often with a very cute baby lying on top. The mums also roll their babies in kelp to keep them secure while mum is off finding shellfish for dinner. The sound of waves is accompanied by the knock, knock of the stones they hold in their paws to break open molluscs on their stomachs. They are also great parents and watching otters teaching their babies is one of the best time-wasting pleasures I’ve ever experienced.

An easy walk around the end of the small peninsula is a little like rounding a mini Cape Horn. Raging seas on one side give way to slightly calmer waters just around the corner. A park bench near the tip provides a welcome resting spot to otter watch, gaze at the sea of wildflowers which carpet walkways on this side, and the plethora of Victorian houses that frame the town. For those who remember a singer by the name of John Denver, this bench also carries a plaque in memory of his death, in a plane crash immediately off this point. Sitting there quietly you can hear ‘Annie’s Song’ being sung by the wind.

Pacific Grove also marks the beginning of the 17 mile drive – a large gated community which is home to many wealthy celebrities, which stretches from Pacific Grove to Carmel-on-the-sea. The lovely guy at the toll booth told us to be sure we visited the Lone Cypress. To Aussies used to seeing trees growing out of granite mountain-sides, this is nothing special, however here, for some reason, a single tree has become a major tourist attraction. This is just opposite the famed Pebble Beach golf course, home of the US Open. If you spend more than $25 at any of the Pebble Beach Company restaurants along the 17-Mile Drive, they’ll deduct the toll fee from your bill. Roy’s restaurant at the Inn at Spanish Bay is famous for their great views and service. Their prices are also much more reasonable than the Lodge at Pebble Beach, and after the fee was subtracted, our lunch bill was only a few dollars more than a mediocre breakfast we had in Carmel the previous day. My friend enjoys her food so much that she sings to it, often unconsciously, and her rendition of the day saw our bill reduced even further, much to our delight.

Carmel is a beautiful seaside village. The town is known for its natural scenery and rich artistic history. In 1906, the San Francisco Call devoted a full page to the “artists, poets and writers of Carmel-by-the-Sea,” and in 1910 it reported that 60 percent of Carmel’s houses were built by citizens who were “devoting their lives to work connected to the aesthetic arts.” Early City Councils were dominated by artists, which may explain their street system, and the town has had several mayors who were poets or actors, including Clint Eastwood. He sat beside us at breakfast at the Carmel cafe with some of his mates, all of whom seemed to be fascinated by Aussie accents. The quaintness of the tiny houses is highlighted by the fact that no street numbers exist here, which made trying to find another friend an exercise all the more interesting with the cuteness of the homes continually distracting us.
Driving home, this time along the freeway, we took another detour as my friend, Laurel is also an avid supporter of the magnificent Monarch butterfly, and she was on duty, again, as a docent (trained volunteer) so I was fortunate to spend some time as a docent assistant at the butterfly Sanctuary.

Pacific Grove is often nicknamed “Butterfly Town, U.S.A.” The community has always welcomed the butterflies and fought for their protection. Citizens of Pacific Grove even voted to pay an additional tax to create the Monarch Grove Sanctuary. The Pacific Grove Police Department continues to enforce strict regulations that prohibit the “molestation of butterflies.” The fine? $1,000.

Arriving in October, the Monarch Butterflies cluster together on the pines and eucalyptus trees of the Sanctuary so that the entire forest becomes a stunningly beautiful, giant moving entity.

That night, as a perfect finale, we visited the Feast of Lanterns, with a picnic. This Festival has evolved over its 100-plus year history to a lantern parade down to the beach and fireworks over the bay – a multi-cultural community event filled with entertainment. A special pageant on the final night celebrates the legend of the “Blue Willow”. While the origins of the story are a little obscure, the Pacific Grove version tells a story where the lovers fly away as Monarch Butterflies, to return again every fall(autumn).

The Monterey Peninsula is one of my favourite places in the world. Stunningly beautiful, teetering on the edge of Big Sur and the Monterey underwater canyon, it is not only full of playful animals, but wonderfully playful people. It is otterly delightful.