Influence of the tides | Opinion | coastview.com
The bait ball, moving with the ebb and flow of an incoming morning tide, had drawn a good chunk of Elkhorn Slough’s inhabitants to the frenzied food source. We sat still in our kayaks and observed from the inside the second largest expanse of tidal salt marsh in California outside of San Francisco Bay.
This 11 km-long wetland swarming with mudflats, winding serpentine canals, coastal meadows and oak forests provides essential habitat for hundreds of species of plants and animals, including more than 340 species. of birds. It has been designated a Ramsar Protected Site since 2018.
The launch off the beach inside Moss Landing was arguably the easiest launch I have ever experienced, and Elkhorn Slough has always been one of the best places to photograph wildlife from a kayak.
The calm, glassy waters rippled with baitfish, sending voracious squadrons of double-crested cormorants above the water’s surface, but also snake-like below while chasing fish. From above, we followed the squeaky cries of aerodynamic Caspian terns as they strategically hovered and hovered above before plunging into the shallows, mostly succeeding by swallowing baitfish on the fly. They are the largest species of terns in North America.
As the bait ball moved with the tide, my girlfriend Holly and I let the rising tide take us where it wanted, our kayaks floating above the melee as we followed the food source. Harbor seals glided past our kayaks like swarms of western sandpipers, the largest concentrations of those shorebirds I have ever seen, buzzed by us from mudflat to mudflat.
Columns of great egrets and great blue herons waded through the shallows, also joining the feeding frenzy of birds and fat seals. The only animal apparently disinterested in the baitfish was a lazy raft of southern sea otters, some with their padded legs covering their eyes during a mid-morning nap.
Elkhorn Slough has a dizzying number of species with 700 species of flora and fauna, and the highest concentration of sea otters in Southern California. The serpentine-shaped canals provide excellent habitat for otters, seals, and sea lions, especially during calving. The 45,000 acres of wetlands also attract various types of research on sea level rise, flora and fauna, and water quality.
Classroom on the water
Among all the flora and fauna, kayakers and stand up paddlers use Elkhorn Slough for recreation. It is a great place to paddle, observe and photograph so many species in their natural habitat.
We saw a kayaker with an iPad mounted, an education specialist for the National Marine Sanctuary. Not wanting to disturb him, I had to ask him what he was doing. He said it was about 30 seconds to deliver a Live Zoom of the Land for sixth graders, a great way for kids to experience and learn about California’s second largest remaining wetland.
Elkhorn Slough makes up some of the last 10 percent of the remaining wetlands in the Golden State, still a surprising number that I’ve heard over and over, but I’m alarmed every time I hear it again. This forces me to reflect on the reserve and the natural park of the Carpinteria marshes. It was once planned to become another condominium-lined marina. Thank you for the town of Carpinteria, the UC reserve system and the non-profit organizations who have come together to right the ship and preserve what is just a postage stamp of what once was.
Mudflats and pickles
The interior of Elkhorn Slough is seemingly an aquatic utopia where birds and marine mammals easily coexist, with the ebb and flow of the tide dictating their time spent on the mudflats and the soft hues of soggy pickles.
Loons swam alongside sea otters. There were large herds of Western Sandpipers, Caspian Terns and Double-crested Cormorants sharing isolated mudflats while basking in the morning sun. Snow-capped egrets guarded the pickles overhanging harbor seals as we floated in our kayaks, the howls of needy puppies were the only sounds we heard as the northwesterly winds increased in the early afternoon.
Elkhorn Slough and its many inhabitants are surrounded by agriculture, a power station, a dairy farm, a harbor and Highway 1, proving that wildlife can still thrive under the right circumstances if allowed.
Adventure and travel writer Chuck Graham lives in Carpinteria and contributes his writing and photography to publications around the world. For more wildlife photos, visit chuckgrahamphoto.com or follow Graham on Instagram at @chuckgrahamphoto.