Do you love otters?
Who doesn't? My 11-year-old son has been into otters for years, and can tell you a lot about them. We found otters to be elusive on our trip to the San Juan Islands in Washington. We knew that sea otters were endangered, so we had pretty much settled for seeing them in zoos and aquariums.
Then I learned about Morro Bay, California. This small, sheltered bay on the Pacific Ocean is an ideal habitat for sea otters, and visitors can find them bobbing and diving here year-round. Otters are far from elusive in Morro Bay. If you spend more than a couple of hours here, an otter sighting might be unavoidable. My 13-year-old daughter reported on Instagram at the end of our trip, “I didn't think I could ever get bored of seeing otters in the wild but I did… so yeah, that says something about the amazing things here at Morro Bay!!”
We spent four nights of our Spring Break in Morro Bay and saw otters and other wildlife every day of our stay. Here are my tips for spotting otters in Morro Bay, California.
Visit Morro Rock
Morro Rock dominates the landscape of Morro Bay, and you can drive, bike or walk right out to it. Pull into the parking area on your left and look for kelp beds in the water, opposite the rock. That's where otters like to hang out – especially in the morning. We came here three mornings in a row to see otters, with success every time. I counted more than 20 otters on one visit.
We came at 9:00, 8:00 and 6:30 A.M. in early April and found that there wasn't a great advantage to coming at daybreak. We saw the fewest otters at 6:30, though they were more active at that time. For us, 8:00 was the best time, followed by 9:00. We saw no otters here when we stopped by in late afternoon.
The parking lot is separated from the water's edge by large rocks. If you'll want to scramble down for a closer look, wear sturdy shoes with good grip. It's not a difficult climb, but some of the rocks may be uneven, slippery or wobbly. We spotted crabs and a sea star in the rock crevices.
Here's some of our best otter video from the trip.
Walk the Embarcadero
Keep an eye on the water as you walk Morro Bay's Embarcadero, the street along the water front. We stayed in a vacation rental right on the water, and spotted our first otter within an hour of our arrival. We found that most of our otter views from the Embarcadero were from a greater distance, and not as reliable as Morro Rock in the morning.
One good spot on the Embarcadero to see otters in the morning is in the kelp bed near the T-shaped dock next to the Great American Fish Company. My husband walked here at about 7:30 one morning and found an otter cuddle party in session. We stopped here the next morning at 6:30 and saw no otters at all, so it may pay to wait until the sun is all the way up, or perhaps he was just lucky.
The advantage to this spot over Morro Rock is that the lighting is much better for photography in the morning, with the sun behind you instead of in front. The Embarcadero is a great place to see the sun set in the evening.
Take a boat tour
Several companies in Morro Bay offer boat tours around the bay, which is a good way to see wildlife and learn more about them from your guide. We took a tour with Sub Sea Tours on the Embarcadero. They offer whale watching and glass-bottom bay tours. We took the whale watching tour and saw otters and sea lions on our way to the ocean. We also saw a couple of gray whales!
Boats are required to stay at least 50 feet from wildlife, so you won't get a much closer look at the otters from the boat than you will from Morro Rock. However, your captain will have the flexibility to go wherever wildlife can be seen in the bay, and will get you a better look at the sea lions that hang out on the ruins of an old bridge in the middle of Morro Bay.
Rent a kayak
The waters of Morro Bay are calm and protected from the ocean on nearly every side. Furthermore, the bay is not that large. It's a great place to rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard, and get out in the bay with the wildlife. Two-seat kayaks are available for couples or families.
Keep in mind that kayaks and paddleboards are required to stay a safe and respectful distance from otters and sea lions. The animals are cute from a distance, but can be fierce if threatened. For your safety and theirs, don't paddle too close to wildlife.
Otters can hang out pretty close to the shore, but once you realize how easy they are to spot in Morro Bay, seeing them from a distance won't be enough. You'll want binoculars for a closer look, because the otters are really that cute. They are just hanging out in the water, begging you to watch for awhile. We forgot to pack our binoculars, and I regretted it every day of our Morro Bay trip.
You can find binoculars starting at $10 on Amazon.com. Click the button to see some options.
With a camera
I recently bought a Google Pixel 2, which has a pretty good camera for a smart phone. It was handy for spur-of-the-moment photos and videos of otters in Morro Bay, but not great for close-ups. If you're serious about getting sharp wildlife pics, you'll want a DSLR camera with a telephoto lens. I'm still a point-and-shoot photographer, and I've found that my Nikon DSLR makes it easy to get beautiful photos with limited skill.
Here's a comparison between a fully-zoomed photo on my smart phone (left) vs. our DSLR (right).
We used a 55-200 mm lens for our otter pics. These were a lot better than my phone pics, but I still wish we'd had a bigger lens for this trip. We also saw gray whales, sea lions, elephant seals, harbor seals and loads of sea birds on this trip – most from too great a distance for the average camera lens.
If otters are on your wish list, Morro Bay, California is a great place to see them. That's what brought us here, and our expectations were exceeded – not only with otters, but with so many other species as well. This wild and scenic section of the California coast is an outstanding destination for families who love nature and seeing animals in the wild.
Disclosure: Our trip was partially hosted by Morro Bay Tourism, including lodging, meals and tours for our first two days. We gladly paid our own way for a couple of extra days in Morro Bay. Hosted or not, all opinions are my own.