Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Elkhorn Slough
Trip Date: May 15, 2005
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: June 6, 2005

Three sea-going camera club members and one associate canoeist participated in the Moss Landing/Elkhorn Slough float trip held on Sunday morning, May 15.  Having risen before the roosters in Milpitas, we watched the sun bake through heavy cloud cover and drizzle on our way down to Monterey County. Dividing into two crews, we boarded the 17-foot Arizona II and the 16-foot Sea Nymph and launched from the mudflats south of the Moss Landing Harbor.  We embarked on smooth waters in dissipating morning fog and ran the harbor gauntlet before ducking under the Highway One Bridge and heading up Elkhorn Slough. The harbor crossing is always a hairy undertaking with the wakes from the pleasure craft, the fishing boat traffic and the swells coming through the harbor mouth from the open ocean. Skirting the harbor boat lanes in such small boats required more than a little bit of caution. We met a big vessel from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), which was probably returning from a research mission in the waters over the Monterey Bay Submarine Canyon. We were dwarfed by its massive steel hull and high-rise superstructure.

Once we got under the bridge, a truly wonderful day opened up to us. Gina immediately hooked up with a gregarious sea otter, which mugged shamelessly for her camera. This particular otter is a habitué of the waters next to the bridge—I saw him in the same place last month. On the nearby shore, the gulls, great blue herons and snowy egrets patrolled the shallow water for small fish and high above, the terns and California Brown Pelicans dove headfirst into the water. As the formations of pelicans flew low over the water, schools of thousands of tiny silver fish flicked out of the water as the birds passed overhead. Perhaps they leaped out the water in a fright reaction at the sight of the birds. They looked like little mirror shards flipping up into the air, catching the morning light. 

The daily rental kayak runs were beginning when we got to the estuary opening and the bright patches of orange, yellow and blue from their hulls and passengers added some contrasting colors to the scene. 

Further up the slough the brown pelicans and the harbor seals shared the mudflats around the first bend. The mother seals and their pups watched us warily as we slipped by. A little further up, groups of sea otters floated on their backs, anchored in patches of submerged marsh grass. We also saw loons, cormorants, and willets among the other numerous species of sea birds that feed in the bountiful waters of the slough. We paddled about a mile and a half against a receding tidal current and upon our return; we had to paddle hard against a stiff wind, giving us all an excellent upper-body workout. The swells from the ocean were larger and we encountered numerous boats coming back into the harbor, making our return a little more of a challenge. In spite of the wave action there were no capsizes and we returned to the cars safe, dry and very satisfied with what we saw on our outing.

Of course, we celebrated the conclusion of this wonderful day at Phil’s Fish Market, a Moss Landing institution. The seafood and side dishes never tasted so good to this group of sunburned and weary salty dogs—even the food extruded by the Golden Arches would taste like a feast after an exhilarating run like we had! 

After lunch we took a short stroll through the street of Moss Landing. The little port town was named for Captain Charles Moss, a sea captain who established a settlement at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough. He must have been successful because, according to local history, he left California and returned to Texas in 1875 with about a quarter of a million greenbacks. The captain deserted but the town kept his name. Moss Landing also had a large shore-whaling station from 1919 to 1926 and still offers haven to a large fleet of commercial fishing vessels.

Moss Landing is also the site of a large power plant and the two gargantuan stacks define the landmark that can be seen from as far away as Monterey and Santa Cruz. Highway One passes directly in front of the huge power plant and forms the eastern border of the town.
Running out to the west from the mouth of Elkhorn Slough is the largest submarine canyon on the west coast of the Americas. It goes straight out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Two major research facilities are located here precisely for that reason. Marine researchers can probe waters in excess of 1,000 meters in depth just an hour’s cruise from the port of Moss Landing. The canyon is probably the reason why the fishing is so good in this location. (If you want to know more about the canyon you can look up the Monterey Submarine Canyon on the web or at the library.)

There are several restaurants and a fish market in the town of Moss Landing and a few of the old houses remain, making a leisurely walk through some of the streets of the small harbor town quite rewarding. Moss Landing, population 500, is home to one of the largest commercial fishing fleets in California and is a real working harbor (unlike Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco which is pretty much for show). On a weekday you could expect to see the harbor swing into action when most of the boats go out early in the morning and return late in the afternoon with their catches. On Sundays the town is rather slow and laid back, but on weekdays the harbor is bustling with activity. You can even buy fresh fish right off the docks.

Moss Landing is also known for its antique shops and restaurants and on the last Sunday in July it hosts an annual antique street fair.

Moss landing is also a paradise for bird watchers and naturalists because it is located at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough, one of the largest relatively unmolested salt-water marshes on the Pacific coast. The slough provides some of the best bird watching opportunities on the West Coast, a truth, which we were repeatedly reminded of last weekend.

© 2005 S.R. Hinrichs