Thursday, December 13, 2007
In Monty Python’s Spamalot, there’s a song called “The Song That Goes Like This.” It’s too long, it changes key, and it parodies Broadway musical love songs. (Its opening lines: “Once in every show there comes a song like this. It starts off soft and low and ends up with a kiss.”)
A similar thing happens when newspaper reporters write about Elkhorn Slough. We always write about kayaking Elkhorn Slough: getting up close with cute sea animals and majestic birds, communing with nature, etc. It’s our Story That Goes Like This. Yes, it’s sappy, but it also describes an enchanting experience.
As we walk on to the dock, an audience of harbor seals awaits us. A half-dozen round, brown and gray heads, some with black spots, bob up and down in the still water. Big dark eyes stare curiously as we climb into the kayaks. Some farther from the dock slap the water with their flippers and tails. More than a dozen more harbor seals snooze on the water’s surface, bodies underwater with noses pointed skyward.
Jo Allen, a Kayak Connection guide, explains the marine mammals’ behavior. “They’re bottling,” she says, pointing at the sleeping seals that do, indeed, look like bottles floating in the water. The slapping seals, she says, are marking their territory, or trying to attract a mate.
Jo and her husband, Charlie, lead the tour and talk about the wildlife we see. They tell us the California brown pelicans’ plumage changes depending on the bird’s age, and whether it’s breeding. “The brown-headed pelican is a juvenile,” Charlie says, explaining how the young birds have brownish-gray necks and heads, a browner back, and largely white under parts. In non-breeding adults, the front, sides, and back of the long neck and head are white. And then there’s breeding plumage: the hindneck turns dark chestnut and a yellow patch of feathers appears at the base of the foreneck.
We see western gulls and common murs, black and white penguin-looking seabirds, and as we paddle up the slough, a sea otter pops up just inches from my kayak. Another one floats on its back, loudly crunching a crab. Charlie’s full of facts about these furry critters, too.
“Those of us lucky enough to have hair on our heads have about 100,000 hair follicles,” says Charlie, who is bald. “They [otters] have 1 million hairs per square inch.” The hair keeps them warm, as does the huge quantities of food they consume. “We would have to eat 170 quarter-pound hamburgers a day to eat as much as they do.”
As we drift toward the salt marshes, a colony of brown pelicans comes into view – hundreds and hundreds of the birds sleeping and sunning on the salt marshes. Some stretch their long necks and bills, turning the throat pouches inside out. Charlie calls it “pelican yoga.” Others sit in the shallow water, washing themselves, flapping their wings. Younger birds play on the banks, pulling out pickleweed and biting other pelicans’ necks. Seagulls nest in holes along the banks where their chicks’ fuzzy gray and brown feathers act as camouflage against the marsh grasses. On the other side of a small grassy hill, snowy egrets and blue herons perch on spindly legs.
Charlie points out the “otter pup playpen,” where, at low tides, pups wrap themselves in eelgrass and mama otters teach the babies how to hunt and crack open crab and clam shells – “they teach them how to be otters,” he says.
It’s not often that one sits so close to so many wild animals, and I begin to understand the awe-filled stories about Elkhorn Slough. I wouldn’t be shocked should the birds, marine mammals, fish, crustaceans and mollusks begin circling my kayak while singing a Disney-inspired number, ala The Little Mermaid. Then Charlie describes a real vision that sounds better than a movie musical: The full-moon paddle kayak tour, floating down the slough in the moonlight and looking up at the trees where snowy egrets perch, filling the branches with bright spots of white that look like Christmas lights.