The Kenwood Press
: 05/15/2015

Wildlife viewing along the California coast

Sharon Ponsford

Last month, before our nursery started to fill up with orphaned wildlife, my husband and I made a spontaneous decision to take a few days off. This was prompted by an irresistible offer from TravelZoo for a two-night stay at a lodge in Cambria. We have taken this trip a few times now, and have previously stayed at the lodge, which is a perfect location for wildlife viewing both north and south.

After getting through the San Francisco traffic, followed by the Santa Cruz traffic, we were finally on Highway 1 heading down the spectacular California coast. This is a drive we love. The highway, with all of its twists and turns is never boring, and the views are beyond compare.

The first excitement for us comes slightly before Big Sur. This is California condor territory. The recovery of the California condor is a story that I have followed since the late ‘70s, when they captured all of the existing condors and brought them into zoos in order to save the species. It was quite controversial at the time, but it worked! In 1982, there were only 22 of the condors left; there are now over 400.

A few years ago, we took a condor viewing trip, sponsored by the Ventana Wilderness Society. We went out with one of the biologists. The condors are tracked with radio telemetry, so they know exactly where to find them. For me, seeing my first condor soaring above was such a thrilling moment – one that I won’t forget. We have taken this drive a few times since that trip, and now always see the condors. It’s quite a sight. They are the biggest bird in America, with a wingspan of up to 9.5 feet.

This is the time of year when the gray whales are migrating north to their summer feeding grounds. One can pull off at any of the many pullouts on Hwy. 1 and not have to wait too long before seeing the water spouts of the whales. Another thrill!

Just a bit north of Hearst Castle, we headed for the Piedras Blancas rookery to see what the northern elephant seals are up to. This time of year the females are molting, and each seal stays on the beach for about a month. Depending on the time of year, there is always something to see at this beach. We did see a number of seals that appeared to be shedding their fur. The last time we were there, the mother seals had come in to give birth, and the beach was covered with mothers and babies.

By the time we got to Cambria, it was getting dark and our thoughts were of dinner.

The next morning, we headed south to Morro Bay. A friend of mine is the animal care director at Pacific Wildlife Care, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center. Unlike our center here in Sonoma County, they deal with a lot of water birds, which we personally are not as familiar with. I met a very nice pelican who was recovering from a broken leg. Huge, he easily came up to my waist! They certainly don’t look that big when you see them flying over the ocean.

Another special patient at the center was a Golden eagle, who is awaiting cataract surgery at U.C. Davis. She is a young bird who possibly tangled with an electric line, which could have caused the cataract problem. Never having been that close to an eagle before, I couldn’t help but be impressed by her overall size and her immense talons.

As we left the center, my friend told us that we might just be able to see some California sea otters in Morro Bay. We drove over to the Bay, and there were about a dozen otters swimming there. We were able to get a nice close view of them – very special, as the California sea otter came close to extinction. They are now protected under the Endangered Species Act and have made a remarkable recovery.

While at Morro Bay, we noticed some excitement on the beach. Marine Mammal Center volunteers were there, rescuing a sea lion. I was impressed by how careful and patient they were trying to load this huge 400-pound animal into a special crate. It was complicated! The whole rescue took well over an hour, and quite a crowd, always respectful, had gathered to watch the process.

On previous trips, we have driven further south to Pismo Beach, where the largest monarch butterfly grove in the state is located. This year, it was a bit too late, as the butterflies have begun their migration. These beautiful butterflies are in trouble as well. Their story is one of the most amazing in all of nature.

On our last day, we took several beautiful back roads on our drive home. Once home, it occurred to me that if it weren’t for the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the California Coastal Commission, there wouldn’t have been much of a reason for us to take this trip at all.