Photo: Mana5280 / Unsplash

“Look!” I said, pointing. “There’s one right there!” We’d just shoved off from the dock and paddled our two-person kayak to the other side of the tiny harbor when we spotted our first otter. The furry bundle was stretched out on its back, completely relaxed, its whiskered face and flippered feet poking out of the water. “Wow, that didn’t take long,” my partner remarked, and I agreed, a smile spreading across my face. Suddenly I felt lighter, as though a weight I didn’t know I was carrying had been lifted off my shoulders.

Earlier that morning at home, I’d caught myself spinning in circles as I tried to figure out what we needed for the trip. We weren’t going far — just two hours by car — and it was only for the day, but it was our first out-of-town adventure since COVID struck and I felt totally out of my element.

As a seasoned traveler, I am accustomed to packing easily and efficiently for a trip, whether it’s a weekend outing or a monthlong international expedition. But not this day. It was as if I’d never left the house. Beyond masks and hand sanitizer, I didn’t know where to begin. I felt lost and strangely unnerved to be leaving the safe confines of our home, where we’d sheltered in place for the last five months. Was it wise to travel even locally with a pandemic on the loose? Was I just being paranoid?

The kayak outfitter had assured me of their COVID safety measures over the phone, and I was relieved to see them in place when we checked in at Moss Landing, set on the California coast 19 miles north of Monterey. Donning face coverings and social distancing, we signed in and sanitized, collected our gear and sanitized, heard the safety briefing and sanitized, and stepped into our boats, shoved off, and, yes, sanitized.

I knew that living with the pandemic had taken a toll on me, but I hadn’t realized how off kilter I had been until I was out on the water, immersed in nature, and finally able to relax. Just as the marine fog lifted off the harbor, my COVID-induced fog of anxiety lifted off me and I started to feel like myself again.

Photo: Mana5280 / Unsplash

Ready to see what lay ahead, we set our paddles to work and propelled our kayak under Highway 1 and into Elkhorn Slough, the second-largest salt marsh in California. This 7-mile-long estuary provides protected habitat for hundreds of plant, animal, and bird species. I love seeing wildlife of all kinds, but I was there for the southern sea otters. (This area is home to the state’s greatest concentration of the mammals.) These playful creatures fill me with joy. And I was overdue.

Before long, we were gliding alongside a pod of 10 otters, and I sat watching them in delighted awe. As they floated along, some groomed their impressively thick fur intently, others nibbled on snacks held endearingly in their front paws. One large pup snoozed on its mother’s tummy as she kept tabs on their surroundings. Up ahead, several pairs of frisky young ones eyed us curiously, then rolled and spun in eelgrass at the water’s surface before diving below.

Photo: Amanda McKee

Meanwhile, plenty of action was taking place on shore. A fleet of sea lions sunbathed blissfully on the muddy banks, while on the earthen shelf above them, hundreds of brown pelicans perched, surveyed, launched, and landed. Smaller birds flitted about and a plethora of other critters kept busy in the grasses.

For the next few hours, we explored the estuary and met more of the inhabitants, including many more otter pods, a few graceful egrets in flight, one inquisitive harbor seal, and a sensational purple-and-pink–striped jellyfish, which pulsed silently into underwater view and then out again. We soaked up the sunshine, greeted other boaters, and tried hopelessly to get good wildlife photos with our smartphones.

Photo: Mana5280 / Unsplash

When it was time to head back, we detoured to a cove to check out one last pair of sea otters. A mother and her older pup watched with interest as we approached. We stopped a safe distance from the two and after a few seconds, the little one disappeared underwater, then popped up right next to our kayak. It rubbed its body along the hull from my seat to my partner’s and looked up into my partner’s eyes. Then it zipped under the boat to surface at my side and look me square in the face. I held my breath, frozen between elation and terror (as adorable as sea otters appear, they have sharp teeth and claws and should always be kept at a respectful distance). I’d heard stories about the Elkhorn Slough otters occasionally grasping paddles or climbing onto boats, but just as I imagined this pup attempting such antics, we heard chastising cries from its mother. “That’s enough! Get back here,” we imagined her relaying, and obediently, the little one ducked back underwater to rejoin her.

After returning to the dock and checking in our gear, we found a pretty spot by the harbor to enjoy our homemade sandwiches. I watched the breeze ripple across the water, smelled the briny sea air, and contemplated how these otters (an endangered species themselves) had helped restore the health and balance this wonderfully varied ecosystem. It struck me at that moment that they had done the same for me: I felt newly alive, hopeful, and reconnected with myself and the natural world.

COVID hadn’t gone anywhere, but for a few hours, I’d safely escaped its heft and remembered lightness, beauty, and the incredible synergies of Mother Nature. Although we were about to head back to our limited, lying-low existences in a city, I was already brainstorming destinations for my next COVID-conscious getaway. This time, I wouldn’t wait so long.

Photo: Mana5280 / Unsplash

Visitor Tips

  • Fall and winter is a great time to visit. Although temperatures may be chillier (especially in the morning), there are many fewer visitors and the wildlife is happier to come out and play.
  • Kayaks can be rented from the Kayak Connection and Monterey Bay Kayaks. For most people, a 4-hour rental is all that you need. Due to COVID, sit-in kayaks likely won’t come with spray skirts, but this makes accessing your supplies more convenient.
  • Timing: Generally, it’s best to start as early as you can in the morning, as wind tends to pick up in the afternoon. When you call to make your reservation, ask about the tides and try to coordinate your paddling into the slough with the flood current and your leaving the slough with the ebb current.
  • Inland from Moss Landing is the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, which offers 5 miles of trails through oak woodlands, tidal creeks, and freshwater marshes. Although the visitor center is currently closed due to COVID, trails have just reopened, providing another lovely vantage point on this protected area.

Writer and content specialist. Adventure traveler and former guide who has summited Kilimanjaro, explored Lima’s food scene, and communed with monks in Bhutan.