Rachel Kippen, our ocean backyard
Lauren Kitayama is an avid conservationist, outdoorswoman, artist and the director of Kayak Connection at Moss Landing. Throughout the ebb and flow of this past year, as downtown shopping areas looked like ghost towns, traffic slowed down and beach concerts took a break, our local parks, our coasts and our paths filled with people. Elkhorn Slough was no different, and anyone who drove Highway One towards Monterey is likely familiar with the bright yellow kayaks strewn across the estuary.
Kayaking has provided a safe and relaxing pastime, and Kayak Connection has weathered several storms to maintain its services. “We closed for 70 days last year due to the pandemic and poor air quality caused by the fires,” Kitayama tells me. “But we were very lucky. My staff are amazing. We worked hard and were able to move our business out and reopen in May 2020. And then we were busy. Like really distraught. We made almost 10% more rentals than in 2019. We were regularly booked on weekends.
Kitayama, who is from Watsonville and whose family owns the Kitayama Brothers cut flower nursery, has spent his life immersed in nature. Growing up on her family’s coastal farm, which is a long-term partner and supporter of the state park system and located near Sunset State Beach, she has an intimate familiarity with the coastline and its connected wetland ecosystems. , and developed a deep sense of responsibility for taking care of nature; “Nature with a capital N,” she told me lovingly. “I learned to kayak the swamp when I was about 5 years old, and it’s such an amazing ecological area it never gets boring. If you get on the water early in the morning, or in the winter when no one else wants to brave the rain, this is one of the most amazing experiences.
Kitayama says having access to the quagmire was the reason she “didn’t go completely mad during the pandemic, and why the staff were willing to work so hard day in and day out. She says: “What we gave our customers was not just a chance to kayak, but a few hours to forget the world was in a mess.
Masks were not allowed on the water due to the risk of drowning, so during this short time, families were able to spend time in the sun, fresh air, having fun, seeing wildlife and get away from it all. We have a handful of guides who regularly incorporate mindfulness and meditation into their tours, and these have been extremely popular this year. She continues: “What’s very cool is that we have more locals than usual, like people who lived nearby or who had crossed the highway bridge for years but never stopped. They have always been surprised by the amount of wild animals. “
Kitayama’s knowledge of the various organizations in Elkhorn Slough has given her a good reputation with some great nicknames including “The Sea Slug Queen” due to her knack for finding and identifying sea slugs. “My favorite experience is still spinning. around the reaction of people to sea hares, the biggest slug on the planet. They can weigh 15 pounds and be the size of a basketball. Most people have absolutely no idea that an animal like this exists, so they panic when you let them hold it. Plus, they’re slimy – really, really slimy, ”she says.
While Kitayama loves showing everyone the quagmire, her favorite aspect of the job is bringing young children out on the water to help them foster an appreciation for the environment, providing similar outdoor formative experiences. in his childhood. “There is incredible wildlife here. Nature is often seen as that distant, inaccessible thing, which makes it difficult for people to understand the impact of their actions. “
Kitayama has been passionate about marine debris since she was a high school student at Aptos High. She received her undergraduate degree from UC San Diego in ecology and then received a graduate degree in marine conservation with a focus on marine debris from the University of Miami.
In Miami, she worked with Debris Free Oceans “to track and map marine debris, taking an approach that goes beyond the simple“ oh no, there is garbage in the ocean! To “what the garbage is on this beach, who owns the garbage, and how do we get these people to take responsibility.” She has completed her apprenticeship and is integrating debris tracking and corporate responsibility into her daily life.
“Like most environmental issues, there is a lot of talk and little meaningful action, and plastic pollution is complicated; much more complicated than most people realize. We have to rebuild the whole recycling infrastructure and make it work, and recycling is not the solution. The consumption of single-use products has skyrocketed during COVID due to fear of contamination, ”says Kitayama.
She noticed trash entering the quagmire along its flooded shores at high tide, including items like plastic bottles, food wrap and plastic beach buckets. “What I would like is for people to go to their workplace and wonder how they can use less plastic in their business, including pressuring their suppliers to ship and package without it. . For example, at Kayak Connection, we have stopped selling drinks in plastic bottles and are working to find suppliers who will ship plastic-free drinks. Thanks to Tim Ward, all of our stickers are shipped in paper envelopes, and I am in the process of contacting our various suppliers to research sustainable options. “
If that wasn’t enough, Kitayama creates nature-inspired art depicting the wildlife found here in Monterey Bay and beyond, highlighting endangered species and drawing attention to their beauty and fragility. For those interested in purchasing Kitayama’s designs, visit Redbubble.com. Kitayama invites the public to the annual Gerbera Festival at Kitayama Brothers Farms on June 19 to benefit the Friends of State Parks and the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau’s Farm Worker Vaccination Program. This year, the festival returns as “Gerbera-N-Go”, with pre-order online at thatsmypark.org.
The next time you take Route 1, stop before the bridge, come in to say hello to the Sea Slug Queen, and consider exploring this vibrant marine protected area right in our own backyard.
Rachel Kippen is an Oceanic Educator and Sustainability Advocate in Santa Cruz County and can be reached at [email protected]