You don't know the Bay Area until you've seen it from the water.
For many people visiting San Francisco, the Bay Area's natural beauty is as much of a draw as Chinatown or Golden Gate Park. But if you’ve only experienced the area's wildernesses through a car window, or even from a hiking trail, you’re missing out on meeting some of the area’s most fascinating residents. The best way to get to know Bay Area wildlife is to hop in a kayak and start paddling.
The Cutest Animals in North America
Northern California's sea otters have to be on everyone’s top-five cutest animals list. Those whiskers. Those furry little faces. The way they crack open clam shells with their furry little paws by whacking them furiously with stones they store in their furry little armpits. There are only a few places you can see them in the wild, which is why kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, about an hour and a half south of San Francisco, is one of the most satisfying wildlife-watching experiences in North America. With just a few paddle strokes, you’ll be surrounded by the furry creatures. Rather than exerting yourself to seek out a fleeting glimpse of some incredible animal, here you'll be so close that the only time you exert yourself is to make sure they don’t get too close to you. (Kayakers are required to stay at least 150 feet away from the wildlife, and otters are curious creatures.) And the kayaking is easy. You may have to work a little when you’re going against the wind or the tide, but this is not a hardcore adventure. My eight-year-old son recently shared a double kayak with my wife, and they did just fine. We rented kayaks from Monterey Bay Kayaks, which has a shop right at the mouth of the slough. You take a brief orientation, and then the kayak is yours for the day. And Elkhorn Slough would be a great wildlife excursion even without the sea otters because of…
Really Cool Birds
Now, as someone not ashamed to call himself a birder, I know that others may not share my level of enthusiasm for bird watching. But getting in a kayak can help even non-birders deepen their appreciation for our fine feathered friends, because from a kayak, a lot of the birds you see are big: Pelicans. Cormorants. Ducks. Gulls. Willets. Curlews. (I’m starting to lose you, right? Sorry.) Simply put, big birds are more fun to watch because they’re easier to see. And lots of the birds that hang out on or near the water are bigger than the birds flitting around in forests.
These birds are especially easy to see from a kayak because kayaks are quiet—and birds aren’t as scared of people when they’re quiet. At Elkhorn Slough, at certain times of the year, the soundtrack to your day on the water is provided by flocks of terns squawking away. These same terns fly overhead and periodically come dive-bombing out of the sky to catch fish. You’ll be paddling along, mesmerized by a sea otter, when all of a sudden you hear a splash right next to you and see a tern emerge with a silvery little fish in its mouth. The pelicans are even more impressive. Dozens will perch on the rocks, all lined up to let you appreciate how colorful and varied they can be. It’s really not fair that they got tagged with the bland name of brown pelican. They’re also white and yellow and red and blue. And when they dive bomb, it’s more dramatic: a big splash often followed by the Wild Kingdom sight of a fish wriggling in the pelican’s pouch.
My home kayaking spot, the Oakland Estuary (which separates Oakland from the island of Alameda) is another great spot to see all sorts of cool birds (scaups, coots, buffleheads, stilts, grebes, pelicans, and…oh, I’m losing you again). It’s about a 20-minute drive (or better yet, an easy ride on public transit) from San Francisco to Jack London Square, where you can rent kayaks from California Canoe and Kayak. As at Elkhorn, the water is calm and good for beginners. And there’s something cool about seeing wildlife in such an urban setting. You can get great views of the Bay Bridge and the skylines of Oakland and San Francisco and watch the cargo ship traffic coming in and out of the Port of Oakland.
Further south along the estuary, you can put your kayak in at the Tidewater Boating Center (where I usually go) and explore San Leandro Bay, part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Regional Shoreline, in the shadow of the Oakland Coliseum complex. You’ll see plenty of birds, and there’s a decent chance you’ll see…
Seals (Also Very Cute, If Not Quite Sea-Otter Cute)
Harbor seals pop up their sweet, big-eyed heads all around the bay, including in the estuary. One particularly good spot to see them is the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, in Fremont, near the eastern end of the Dumbarton Bridge, about 40 minutes south of San Francisco. Harbor seals are known to haul out on the refuge’s salt marshes. (The refuge is also a great place for birds.) You will need to bring your own boat.
And speaking of seals, for an only-in-San Francisco experience, kayak to a Giants game at AT&T Park. Not only will you have a chance to see harbor seals, you could also spot Lou Seal, the team’s mascot. Just to be clear, he’s not an actual seal. (And you can't really watch the game from the water, though you could hang out and try to catch any home run balls that come over the wall.) You can rent a kayak near the stadium from City Kayak.
Glow-in-the-Dark Dinoflagellates. And Elk. Which Don’t Glow in the Dark.
What, you don’t know what a dinoflagellate is? How about bioluminescence? Bioluminescence is when living organisms emit light, like fireflies. Or dinoflagellates, which are the tiny creatures that live in Tomales Bay, about an hour and a half north of San Francisco. During certain times of the year, on dark, moonless nights, you can kayak out into the bay and watch as the little critters light up with each passing fish or diving seal. Blue Waters Kayaking leads guided trips when the time is right. If you’re into larger-scale creatures, Blue Waters also leads trips that offer views of the area’s resident Tule elk.
All of these spots are accessible to beginning kayakers, joining a guided trip will help ensure you have a safe, fun time, and the guides can make sure you don’t miss any of these incredible creatures.
For more kayaking spots around the bay, check out the San Francisco Bay Water Trail.
Once you see what sea otters do with San Francisco's seafood, taste what humans do with it.
For more to do in San Francisco, check out the AFAR Guide to San Francisco.
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