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OUT THERE

Hey Paddlers: Give the Sea Otters Their Space

Volunteers help keep a safe separation between visitors and wildlife in Monterey Bay.

August 30, 2003|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

MONTEREY, Calif. — A sea otter munching on a crab stopped in mid-chew and dove beneath the ocean's surface. A harbor seal, lounging on the mudflat like an enormous slug with whiskers, raised its head in alarm. A gaggle of pelicans, roosting and preening on the shore, paused and stared at a pair of kayakers bearing down on them.

"Uh-oh, that's a big no-no," said Lisa Krigsman. She spun her kayak around, her paddle windmilling as she raced off to intercept the encroaching kayakers.

"You guys need to be 50 to 75 feet away," she called out, herding the kayakers away from shore.

Krigsman gets teased by her roommates that she's an "aquacop" or sergeant in the "fun police." Officially, she's a part-time naturalist with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, working with a team of 32 kayaking docents who try to keep boaters, kayakers and other two-legged visitors at a respectful distance from the area's abundant marine life.

It's a busy job. Kayak shops rent out boats to about 30,000 people a year here, often to first-time paddlers who cling to the shoreline along Monterey's Cannery Row, or stay in the sheltered waters up the coast in an estuary called Elkhorn Slough.

Krigsman's team expects to intercept about 3,500 kayakers this summer, as it did last year -- all in an effort to reduce the unintended stampeding of seals and seal lions or flushing of seabirds that come to land to rest after a day and night of fishing.

"We have only one enforcement officer and he can only be at one place at one time," said William J. Douros, superintendent of the 5,328-square-mile sanctuary. "Our enforcement program is focused on education first -- not writing a ticket -- and our volunteers can help with that."

So every Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the summer, Krigsman and other members of the sanctuary's Team Ocean slip their kayaks into the coastal waters to head off the unintended harassment of endangered otters and other marine critters.

"We're not aquacops, by any means," said Jen Jolly, the team's coordinator. "Our naturalists don't have any enforcement power. We're just there to tell people what's the right thing to do."

That's not always easy. Federal regulations offer little guidance, for instance, on how to avoid harassing seals or sea otters in violation of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

So the team has come up with practical rules of its own, such as advising kayakers to remain about five boat-lengths away from seals lolling on the muddy banks of Elkhorn Slough.

"You can tell if you are getting too close," volunteer naturalist Althea Randell told a small flotilla of first-time kayakers struggling to control their boats. "If they raise their heads, they are feeling threatened."

All of this nautical nanny-ism can, at times, seem oddly out of place in Elkhorn Slough, a free-flowing estuary off the backside of Moss Landing Harbor.

A favorite haul-out spot for harbor seals is sandwiched between a privately owned shooting range and a heliport. The incessant rifle shots and thwack-thwack of helicopter blades made the place on a recent Saturday sound more like a war zone than a marine sanctuary. The noise doesn't seem to bother the seals, sanctuary officials say.

Then there's the annual shark derby, a popular event that lures hunters in camouflage outfits and crossbows into the slough for a yearly kill of leopard sharks and bat rays, which seek refuge in the estuary to deliver their young.

Two years ago, the sanctuary's volunteer naturalists called in backup -- using the cell phones they carry to summon the sanctuary's lone enforcement officer -- before realizing that the shark hunt was perfectly legal and regulated by another public agency, the state Department of Fish and Game.

Still, Krigsman said, "It is ironic that we are out here telling people to be respectful of the wildlife, right beside the shark hunters and gunshots ringing out from the shooting range."

Many of the kayakers seemed to welcome the gentle guidance after they got over their mild embarrassment for too-close encounters with pelicans, cormorants, seals, sea otters and other critters that hang out just behind Seal Bend, near the mouth of the slough.

"It's not your fault," Krigsman told a pair of paddlers who ventured too close. "There's no signage."

Wade Parker, one of the kayakers that got too close, later said he was glad the place wasn't littered with signs spoiling the view. "I'm not 100% aware of what to do and what not to do," Parker said. "There are a lot of kayakers out here. If we're out here disturbing things, we would hope that there would be some people out here to tell us."

The three naturalists on duty one recent Saturday spent most of their time answering kayakers' questions.

What are those big birds? White pelicans.

Is that a dead seal? Yes. One has died and the authorities will arrive to remove the carcass.

How come there aren't any sea otters? There are so many kayaks around they have retreated to calmer waters.

"If you have any questions," Krigsman told a family in a pair of double kayaks, "please flag one of us down. We're like floating kiosks."

Dan Moulton, a visiting biologist from Texas, was impressed by the diligence of the naturalists.

Paddling into the backwaters of the slough, he was reminded of the same tensions he sees between humans and wildlife back home.

"She's right," he said after a chat with Krigsman about seabirds and marine mammals. "We are loving these things to death."

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