California Sea Lions, Zalophus californianus
Sea lions often come to mind when the word "seal" pops up. They are by far the most abundant pinnepeds in the region. Actually, seals and sea lions are in different taxonomic families.
What we are most likely to encounter around the Wharf are California sea lions and harbor seals. The sea lions have--among other things--much larger front flippers, external ear flaps, and separate/rotating rear flippers that allow them to walk and climb out of water. They have more agile squirming bodies than harbor seals. Seals have no ear flaps, have shorter flippers, and look less flexible.
The result is that the sea lions can climb up rocks and leap onto Wharf crossbeams, while the harbor seals wriggle their way out on gentle slopes and low lying rocks, like those in the San Lorenzo River.
Sea Otters, Enhydra lutris of the fissiped family
Sea otters, perhaps, might be called the teddy bears of the sea. The public is greatly enamored of them, and has helped this species gain the protection it needs to recover from the rampant fur hunting of the last centuries. Their fur is so luxuriously thick and soft that the survivors of the Vidas Bering party returning to Russia from the first explorative voyage of Alaska could ask any price for them and get it.
Sea otters were considered extinct in our region until a small colony was spotted in 1938 off the rocky Big Sur coastline. They have recovered somewhat spreading northward through the Santa Cruz County coast and to Half Moon Bay. They have not progressed past the Golden Gate, even when caught and "planted" there.
Their numbers in this southern extremity of their range have kept far behind the recovering Alaskan population of otters, with various theories as to why.
They can be seen foraging around the Wharf and the kelp beds. They tend to grab up shellfish, a rock, and smashing these together on their chests as they lay on their backs in the water. To wash off their "table" they simply roll over in the water and keep eating on their backs.
The mothers will carry their young clutched to them in the water. Sea otters are not exceptionally wary of people, and will largely ignore swimmers, surfers, and boats near them as they go about their foraging.
Humpback Whales, Megaptera novaeangliae
Humpbacks are the crooners among the cetaceans. They are the ones with the long melodic tapestries that last up to half an hour, singing through the water across entire ocean basins, and changing with every year. Each year, the whale songs change or evolve a little. They stay recognizable enough to identify groups, and even individuals.
Humpbacks are baleen whales. They have curved brooms of baleen for teeth and force 100-gallon gulps of water out through them to catch little krills and small fish. Like the other mysteceti whales in their family, they have two blowholes on top of their head for breathing.
They grow 50 feet long and stay graceful as swans. Along our coast, humpbacks are becoming more common. They spend their summers in the high latitudes of the northern Pacific and winters dispersed through the warmer lower latitudes, with concentrations off California, Mexico and Hawaii. Especially in Hawaii, they mount great theatrical displays leaping clear of the water to slam back down beneath. One trick of theirs is to circle schools of small fish and ring them around with a curtain of bubbles, which gets smaller and smaller. The whale then rushes up from underneath and takes in a big gulp.
Individual humpbacks have appeared around the Wharf. They can be distinguished from gray whales by their black bodies, larger dorsal fin, very long, wing-like, pectoral fins and what seem like bolts-in-a-deck ringed around their long snouts.
Gray Whales, Eschrichtius robustus
Grays migrate the longest distance of the cetaceans, from Alaska to Mexico and back every year. They are considered a "coastal whale" because they don't venture out into the deep Pacific much, and are considered shallow-divers. They too have baleen brooms for teeth and like to munch out a big chunk of sandy bottom, which they then force through the baleen.
This habit allows amphipods and lice to grab onto the whale and dig in. The whale's body becomes their new home and gives the grays their characteristic barnacled appearance. Grays, in fact, have the greatest ecto-parasite load of any other cetacean.
These whales are the most visible to land-dwellers of all. In spring, they can be seen taking their time ambling upcoast back to Alaska. Grays can frequently be seen within a few hundred feet of shore, and seem to like the area right at Lighthouse Point and along West Cliff Drive. It is not rare to even see one pop up in Cowell's Beach Cove.
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© 1997 Michael Harris, Under the Wharf Magazine & Photography, 831-469-0443