The Otter Show - Exploring California's Elkhorn Slough

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As the pontoon boat cruises past sea lions basking in the sun, around 30 otters suddenly appear just 20 metres away, seemingly oblivious to the “oohs and aahs” from on board. They’re a local crew that are now well used to the sound of the boat’s engines and they seem happy to float on their backs and enjoy the warmth of the morning sun. This is a typical day on Elkhorn Slough - a wildlife reserve in the central Californian town of Moss Landing. 

Most people who take the drive down from San Francisco head for the busy beach city of Santa Cruz, a journey of around 90km, or the tourist-friendly town of Monterey a bit further down the track. Between the two though, is Moss Landing - it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of place and as a result most people miss out on its special natural wildlife. A 200 metre high power plant on the approach into the harbour village also puts some people off, but that’s quickly forgotten once Moss Landing’s laid-back charm takes hold.

It’s a one-street town built around its busy and protected harbour, and features a collection of restaurants and antiques shops - here the pace of life kicks back a few gears and you get the impression most people in town are happy for the world to pass them by. It all belies the fact that the town is home to what’s been described as one of the most unforgettable wildlife experiences in the USA - the Elkhorn Slough Wildlife Reserve. 

A slough is a narrow winding waterway with a lot of mud which can be anything from a ditch on the side of the road to an impressive waterway such as the Elkhorn Slough - which winds its way 12km inland and encompasses more than 3000 acres of marsh and tidal flats. It’s one of the few undisturbed coastal wetlands in California and is home to 400 different species of invertebrates, 100 species of fish and 300 species of birds.

The Elkhorn Slough Safari ( is the best way to explore this special wildlife habitat aboard a 27 foot pontoon boat which can access the shallow areas of the slough. With “Skipper Joe” at the helm and a naturalist on board, it’s obvious within the first five minutes that Elkhorn Slough is something special, with seals, sea lions and the otter crew revealing themselves. There are just a few thousand otters left because of the fur trade in the past and in just two hours, the slough’s residents put on a show. Pelicans cruise overhead and land among some seals basking in the sun on the bank. A Great Blue Heron stands regally nearby, Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets, Cormorants, Long Billed Curlews, and Canadian Geese are just some of the migratory birds that use this area as a resting point.

The otters are the main attraction, however, and further inland amongst some eel grass are about five juvenile otters, and a little further on an eight month old otter frolics and feeds with its mother. Both are in a playful mood and they too seem unconcerned about the approaching boat. Clams are otters’ favourite food and they use tools such as a sharp piece of rock to open them up, and they’re often targeted by other scavengers such as seagulls looking for an easy meal. It’s an experience which feels like a living National Geographic documentary - curious harbour seals swim towards the boat and appear to regard the latest expedition into their world with some amusement.

It’s possible to breeze into Moss Landing for a day and do the Elkhorn Slough Safari, but it’s a place that’s worthy of an extra day or two at least to experience the chilled-out harbour town and locals. The best place to stay is  the Captain’s Inn (, a romantic bed and breakfast establishment with 10 guest rooms. The main building, built in 1906, has four rooms where elegance is mixed with tradition thanks to some authentic nautical antiques, but for a bit of fun the six rooms in the Boathouse, don’t just feature a nautical theme - the rooms are made from actual boats. Each of the beds is literally made from an old boats, and the salmon trawler San Pedro has views out over the river channel and sand dunes where seals and shorebirds provide yet another wildlife show. 

With a deep bath tub and a fireplace, it’s tough to step outside in the evening but locals say a visit to Phil’s Fish Market is a must for anyone who likes seafood with an Italian twist. Even in midweek, local people queue up to get into this lively market-meets-restaurant, and even though it’s in California, it has the feel and atmosphere of a good old-fashioned New England seafood eatery. With the nearby sea lions barking into the night, it leaves a memory which is both unexpected and uplifting. 

Ben Hall


  • 5
    Wish We'd Known

    Posted by Kevin on 27th May 2019

    We drove from San Fran to LA as part of our touring holiday in California and Nevada last year. Wish we'd known about this place then! We stopped in Monterrey and found it very touristy - Moss Landing sounds more local. Next time I hope!

  • 5

    Posted by Jenny K on 27th May 2019

    Love otters! I watched a program about some otters in Singapore recently on TV and it was that they live in families and they're so very cute! This place sounds like a great destination to kick back and see them. Great article!