Accommodations, travel, and a complimentary pass for the Elkhorn Slough Safari Tour were provided to facilitate this story on What to do in Monterey CA; however, all opinions are my own. See Monterey #Tentacles
What to do in Monterey CA – Elkhorn Slough Safari
Elkhorn Slough Safari Guided Nature Boat Tour
Moss Landing, CA 95039
I’ll admit it. When I heard I’d be taking the Elkhorn Slough Safari tour, I wasn’t excited. First because I had no idea what an Elkhorn Slough was and because I get motion sick easily and I thought that a boat trip would mean instant nausea.
But I went and was pleasantly surprised. In fact, the Elkhorn Slough Safari was one of the highlights of my recent trip to Monterey County!
Elkhorn Slough Safari – Getting There
The Elkhorn Slough Safari takes off from the Moss Landing Marina. It’s an easy trip from the Santa Cruz or the Monterey Peninsula. If you’re traveling from Monterey, expect the 18.8 mile trip to take about 23 minutes with the exception of Sundays when traffic going that direction is backed up and could easily triple the time it takes. Leave early in the day and enjoy breakfast at one of the restaurants near the Landing and skip the heavy traffic.
What is an Elkhorn Slough Safari?
First, Elkhorn Slough is the name of the body of water the pontoon vessel travels through. So what’s a slough? It’s a winding body of water that connects to the ocean. Unlike an estuary which is where fresh and sea water meets, a slough can be mud. What makes Elkhorn Slough unique is that it’s a part-time estuary and it’s a fabulous California wetland that’s home to nesting birds, sea animals, and birds.
I learned all about estuaries and sloughs on the trip as well as information on endangered animals. I also saw 700+ Sea Lions on the 2-1/2 hour trip as well as hundreds of birds and other amazing creatures. Though I’m no photographer and I use a point-and-shoot camera, I got some amazing shots of wildlife!
Meet the Crew
The boat is captained by Yohn Gideon, who’s been providing these trips since 1994. He’s also the owner of the Captain’s Inn at Moss Landing, a unique bed and breakfast that I hope to visit someday.
Also on board was a young Naturalist. She was a fantastic guide sharing tidbits of information about the area, the animals, and more on the tour. She had a friendly style that made me feel comfortable from the start.
What Will You See on the Elkhorn Slough Safari?
The first few minutes of the trip are through the marina. Spend a few minutes checking out the names of the boats docked there – some are pretty funny. It’s also a chance to see the vast array of shapes, sizes, and boat designs.
California Sea Lions
Before you even leave the marina you’ll see your sea animal – the amazing Sea Lions who have taken over many of the docks. Yes, they’re smelly, but they’re amazing creatures with interesting features – they truly have their own personalities.
California Sea Otter
As you head out onto the open water, you’ll see plenty of Sea Otters, so close to the boat you’ll get to see every detail of their adorable faces. A group of Sea Otters are called a raft and we saw several on our adventure. Many of them were tied up in the weeds to hold themselves in place and sometimes mother Otters use the vegetation to keep their babies safe while they look for food.
This is an amorous pair in the mating process. The female is the one looking at us. We know this because the males bite their noses to show their love and she’s got the scars to prove it.
This is a mom with her baby along for the ride – it almost looks like a two-headed creature. There were so many babies that one swam up to the wrong mother and like a human child, he let out a noise of shock and started calling for his mom when he realized his mistake. It was the same pup who’d hidden from his mother only minutes earlier and she frantically searched for him above the water calling out to him. Like a naughty child, he eventually popped up as if to say “Peek a Boo!”
This fellow wasn’t fazed by us at all. He was intent on eating. We watched as he used his “tool” to open a clamshell. It was truly a highlight of the trip. It turns out these tools are tucked into a flap of skin and used over and over. It could be a rock, another shell, or even trash he’s found in the water. Pretty smart little critters!
California Harbor Seals
We also saw hundreds of Harbor Seals, many with newborn pups laying nearby and others nursing. The vast array of colors, sizes, and shapes of these magnificent creatures come in is awe inspiring.
Their coats are generally spotted (though some almost look like stripes from a distance) and they range from silver-gray and white to dark brown and black. They can get up to 6 feet long and weigh as much as 300 pounds, with males being generally larger than the females.
When trying to distinguish a Harbor Seal from a Sea Lion, the easiest way is to check for ear flaps. Seals don’t have them and they can only crawl so you’ll see them up on beaches, but generally not on docks like the Sea Lions.
Along with all the sea animals are plenty of birds; over 350 species, in fact. Bring your own binoculars or rent them for $2 from the Captain, though you’ll see plenty without them. You’ll find different birds throughout the year though they’ve spotted the golden eagle, black skimmer, tundra swans, and more rare birds on some trips.
When to go on the Elkhorn Slough Safari Tour
Anytime! The boat runs year-round (though limited runs during the off season) and what you’ll see changes. I went on April 13th was rewarded with so many new seal pups and watched two Sea Otters heavy into the mating ritual. Take this trip with your kids and you may have to explain the birds and bees! But fall is great for learning about migration and a fabulous time for photography.
See what’s available with their online reservation system and reserve your spot early. Many of the trips sell out.
What to Wear & Bring to the Elkhorn Slough Safari
The pontoon boat is not covered so bring a hat or sunscreen and a jacket, even in the summer. For colder months, dress in layers and bring more than you think you’ll need – the wind can make it feel much colder.
Wear comfortable shoes – you’ll be walking on a dock to board the boat. Also, there are no restrooms on the boat – use the Marina bathroom near the flagpole before boarding.
Elkhorn Slough Safari Tour Prices
Prices for a regular tour are $35 for adults, $26 for children 3-12 (sorry, no children under 3), and $32 for seniors 65+. Was it worth the $35 price tag? ABSOLUTELY! The only way to get closer to these animals is to view them in a zoo and it’s not the same. Or you can rent a kayak, but the pontoon boat puts you above the animals for better viewing.
Final Thoughts about the Elkhorn Slough Safari Tour
They do offer products associated with the tour like t-shirts, stuffed animals, etc., at the end of the trip and tips for the Naturalist are appreciated. It didn’t distract from the overall tour and was thankfully very low key. They also passed out oatmeal raisin cookies near the end of the trip which was a nice touch.
This is definitely one activity I’ll do again on my next trip to the Monterey area. I found myself wishing my husband was there to enjoy it with me and someday we’ll make that happen.
Have you been to Moss Landing? What would you recommend for my next visit?
What to do in Monterey CA – Monterey County Activities, Lodging, Food, and Events:
- Tentacles Monterey Bay Aquarium New Exhibit Overview
- Pebble Beach CA: Casa Palmero, 17-Mile Drive and The Bench
- Travel California: Carmel-by-the-Sea – a Vacation Oasis
- Carmel Wine Walk by-the-Sea – Estate-Grown Local Wines
- Hotels in Carmel: Hofsas House Hotel
- Top Restaurants Near Carmel – Fandango Restaurant
- Top Restaurants in Carmel – mundaka Spanish Style Tapas
- Travel California: Holman Ranch – Carmel Valley
- California Wedding and Event Location – Holman Ranch
- Holman Ranch Vineyard – Touring the Winery