seal, sea lion, or sea otter: how can you tell?

All three are cute-faced, chubby marine mammals that we imagine swirling gracefully through kelp beds and lazily basking in the sun. Chances are, we’ve seen them all at some point whether kayaking morro bay, cruising san simeon or diving the channel islands. So how do we tell them apart? Can you tell which is which?

No? Then listen up, folks, so that next time someone calls a sea lion an otter, you can assert your pinniped-mustelid knowledge and sound like the smartest guy on the block– er, beach.

The Pinniped family can be divided into two groups:

Sea Lion 


visible earflaps



do not bark 

hindflippers more adapted for walking on land, docks

wiggle onto land with stomach 



long front flippers

short front flippers 

long, pointed nose (think balancing a ball at the circus) 

rounded faces with short curly whiskers 

The Mustelid, or weasel family are home to the sea otters

Sea Otters 

use hair for warmth, have as many hairs in one square inch as human’s entire body (up to 1 million per square inch!) NO layer of blubber

smallest marine mammal, but can get up to five feet long! 

use tools, which they store in armpit flaps

wrap themselves in kelp beds while sleeping

Take another look at the top pictures and see if you guessed right, or if you can point out all the differences between a sea lion, sea otter, and seal.
happy sight sea-ing!

Author Matt Ritter speaks for the trees

Reasons why we should care about trees in California:

1. We like to breath oxygen. (I’m just guessing here…)

2. We enjoy shade on a hot day

3. They’re perfect for slacklining

4. Treehouses?

5. Beautiful, diverse, elegant beings that they are, how could we not love trees?

Matt Ritter, author of “A Californian’s Guide to The Trees Among Us“, spoke at Cal Poly last month about the trouble trees face, why we need to protect them, and why, frankly, people just don’t seem to care. I’ve posted my story (published in the Mustang Daily Newspaper) on his talk below, or you can check out the podcast here to listen and learn firsthand about how beautiful our California trees are!

(published February 6, 2012 Mustang Daily News) 

One-third of the plants in California are in danger, Cal Poly associate biology professor Matt Ritter told the audience during a Conversations with Cal Poly Authors event at the Robert E. Kennedy Library Friday morning.

Ritter, director of the Cal Poly Plant Conservatory, and author of “A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us,” started his discussion on urban trees by holding a flowering branch of a Princess eucalyptus plant in one hand and his latest book in the other.

“You would be surprised of how little we know (about trees) and where they are,” Ritter said. “We need to fight for diversity, and a beautiful, stronger urban forest.”

Ritter said he wrote his book “hoping it would be a ‘gateway drug’ of sorts,” for people to search for a greater appreciation of the urban trees in their cities.

“I, too, see value in appreciation of trees to spark conservation and wildlife diversity,” Mark Krist, who worked with Ritter on the Cal Poly Tree Project, said. “It makes people connect more with their planet. Dr. Ritter inspires students to learn more about trees — he has a contagious persona, and enthusiasm for the plant world.”

The book delves into the plant world by detailing 150 to 200 different tree species in California of which Ritter studied during visits to almost every city in western California with a population over 40,000, including San Luis Obispo.

The average person can recognize thousands of brand logos, but less than 10 trees around them, according to Ritter’s book.

In San Luis Obispo County, there are 1,850 species of native plants, and 250 of them are federally endangered or at risk, Ritter said. The Morro Bay Sandspit for example, is home to more rare plants than any other place in the county, Ritter said.

In the face of global warming, “I am worried for a number of reasons about trees in California,” Ritter said. “We need to find and figure out species that are going to be helpful for us.”

These are trees like the ever-controversial and non-native eucalyptus, he said. While many species of eucalyptus act as weeds, this tree “thrives on neglect, needing little water, and provides shade to the streets and absorbs carbon.”

The Coast Live Oak (his tree of choice for treehouses) might soon not be found in places as far south as San Diego due to global warming, Ritter said. Currently, the tree can be found in areas reaching from Sonoma to Baja.

Ritter was joined by Enrica Lovaglio Costello, associate professor of digital media in the art and design department.

“I think it’s really important to see these professors in a different light,” English senior Jordan Hooper said. “And what (Ritter) is saying, it’s really important and valuable.”

The “Conversations with Cal Poly Authors” series is an effort to “bring unity to different departments,” public programs coordinator Karen Lauritsen said. Ritter was the fourth speaker in the series.

“He was very entertaining,” Lauritsen said. “It is important to know and appreciate the natural world.”

–happy tree-hugging, friends!

The Camping is Easy at Refugio

Located just a few miles north of Santa Barbara and Goleta , the beachfront campground at Refugio is a great spot for a weekend getaway, especially when you don’t have time and money to actually “get away.”


Back in February we were fortunate enough to have a warm weekend matched with some prime diving conditions. Refugio was the spot to go.


The campsites are literally feet away from the water. There’s a nice little creek that runs through the middle of the grounds, and most campsites come with a nice array of big, shady trees perfect for a hammock or swing.Image

The railroad tracks are just next to the campgrounds, so bring earplugs if the train may be bothersome at night. Most campsites are also equipped with a firepit, picnic table, and bathrooms and showers nearby (don’t forget quarters for the showers!) There is also a small general store on-site.

The best beachfront sites are reserved for the hike and bike campers. These are also the least expensive.

For the bikers: there’s a fun path called the Aniso Trail that goes to El Capitan and back from the campsite; the official trail closed a few years ago, but you can go around the closures and still get a great view of the bluffs!


For the beach strollers: There’s lots to find in the washed up kelp, including shark’s “mermaid purses” if you have a keen eye! You can also climb around the rocks and see what is hiding there during low tide. We found an octopus, fish, lots of mussels, and a few crabs!


For the actives: Relax on the swingset, play frisbee on the beach, shoot hoops in the basketball court, or volleyball on the grass field.


For the divers: Our first dive, we headed out North towards the kelp beds in the right of the cove, but found nothing but a couple of crabs and starfish on a desolate sandy bottom (Turns out, we did not swim far enough out.) The second dive, we finned straight out from the lifeguard station pretty far before going down, and even then had to fumble our way through some green, churned up water before it cleared up to 15ft viz and awesome shelf. There was lots of color and life on this reef, and it was worth the swim.  Max depth was 25-30 ft.


For everybody: don’t forget the s’mores, music, good company, and to watch the glorious sunsets that usually accompany a fun day at Refugio!


Killer Whales and a perfect day at sea.


photo by Dayton Pickering

I’m outstretched on the top deck, with a cool drink in hand and a smile across my salty face. I hear soft chatter below as the hunters compare their prizes– sheepshead, perch, scallops– and the last of the divers peel off their gear.

The water is glassy smooth as the boat’s engine works up a rumble and we start to head away from the island. I close my eyes as the rolling of the boat and the warm sun on my back lulls my tired body to sleep. Yes, today was a perfect day for a Channel Islands boat dive.

Moments later the squeak of the intercom jolts me awake as the captain announces “Orca sighting off the front bow!” The boat springs to life; I hear screams and the pounding of feet sprinting up the ladder from the bunks. We are all crowded at the bow, squinting into the sun and searching the blue waters for any sign of a fin.

We hold our breath. The engine is off. The boat is still. Even the water seems to pause in anticipation.

Suddenly an outstretched finger and a shout points to a tall, graceful fin gliding across the water. And then another! Three of them! A small family of killer whales, just a few stretches away from our mesmerized eyes, shooting spouts of water and singing to each other.

They tease us; swimming closer, then disappearing for a few minutes, only to pop up next to the bow, flashing their grey markings and slippery black skin.

I hear the captain explain the rarity of this sighting; every two, three years maybe.

My mouth hangs open in fascination; seeing orcas, these magnificent dolphin-like, powerful creatures, approaching the boat with such curiosity, staring me down with their dark, black eyes, and then disappearing into the deep waters again.

Forty-five minutes later, and all too soon, the family gives us one last show of their dorsal fins, and head back out to hunt in the channel.  The engine roars back to life. The waves slap the sides of the boat. Divers retire back to the deck. Conversations resume.

I stand at the bow a few minutes longer, resting my hand on the anchor line as I watch Santa Barbara Harbor grow closer. The wind fusses with my hair. The sun beats down on my face. I close my eyes and smile. Yes, a truly perfect day at sea.

6 reasons SLO beats a big city

1. Friendly faces on the public transportation.

no shoving, pickpockets, or dirty talking. No gypsies or homeless trying to win your pity, leaning in your face asking for money. The worst you’ll find on the transportation here is a grumpy bus driver.

2. Seeing the stars at night (no, I’m not talking about Hollywood Blvd.)

If I look out my window on a clear night, the sky is ornamented with tiny twinkling constellations. Trip up the steps in the Paris metro and you might see stars too. But let’s face it– it’s pretty cool to live in a place where the Big Dipper greets you every time the sun goes down.

3. All that green.

Hills, grass, flowers, and beautiful parks. No, not central park. Not Golden Gate. Not even Griffith. I’m talking the national parks that run all along the central coast surrounding SLO. Montana de Oro, Los Osos Reserve, and Big Sur. Now there’s a place to do your morning jog.

4. Not having to pay a $20 cover charge at the bars and clubs.

Clubbing in Hollywood is not cheap. DV8 and Highlands charge at least $20 just to get in, let alone sky high prices on watered down drinks. Exchange dollars to euros in Paris and your weekend outings are costing more than that deposit on your 10×12 ft. apartment above the karaoke bar.

5. Quiet nights

Living in a city, I got used to the nightly humdrum of police sirens, car alarms, loud music from the nightclubs, and construction outside. My first night back in SLO, it was so quiet I could literally hear crickets. I’ve grown to appreciate the tranquil nights here and the occasional coyotes- instead of falling asleep to fire trucks and waking up to construction workers. For those of you that think drunk college students are a nuisance at night, try living above a karaoke bar for four months.

6. There’s always a private beach waiting for you

Look for any beach along the West side of LA- littered with trash and crowds of tourists. Go to Spooner’s Cove here, and the most company you’ll find is a hungry seagull and a family picnic. Shell and Avila beaches are really the only beaches that get crowded– so take those popular days and find a different beach- Pirate’s Cove  perhaps?

7. where else can you take it SLO?

Love where you live, because you can’t find a place like this anywhere else.

A list of Catalina Musts

Recently I spent a weekend with some of the most rad people ever- Scuba Club- on Catalina Island.

I’ve already shared with you pictures from catalina island, but i’ve yet to divulge all of the secret (and not so secret) must-do activities while visiting Avalon, Catalina.

Before I do, here’s how you get to the island: pick a date and reserve a spot on the Catalina Express either out of Long Beach or San Pedro. Then mark your calendar and get REALLY excited. In between that and boarding the ferry, take a motion sickness pill- just in case.

If you’re planning on staying more than a day-trip’s worth, I recommend  hotel La Paloma Las Flores. Quaint, relatively inexpensive, and located in the heart of Avalon. Or skip the hotel and get a spot at the campgrounds!

For divers, there is a tank fill truck right at the dive park- Catalina Divers. There is also ScubaLuv in Avalon. Both charge $7 per tank fill.

So, now that you’re on the island, here’s a list you can start experiencing for yourself.

1. hike to Wrigley Memorial- $0

2. find the pet cemetery- $0

3. dive the dive park- and while you’re there, find the Jacques Cousteau and memorial plaques and the sunken glass-bottom boat – $7 tank fill

4. get Big-Olaf’s ice-cream. – $4

5. freedive/ snorkel Lover’s Cove – $0 (if you bring your own mask, snorkel and fins. Otherwise you can rent them right at Lover’s)

6. go on a night dive at the dive park and shut off your dive light for a minute at the bottom to see the bioluminescence -$ 7 tank fill

7. search for buffalo – $0

8. rent a tandem bike with a friend and cruise around town for an hour – $10

9. scuba at Descanso Beach – $7 tank fill

10. go to VONS, get some fixings and have a picnic on the beach – price depends on how hungry you are!

11. go inner-tubing at Descanso – $5/ hr.

12. rent some kind of boat, kayak, or paddleboard and ride around the harbor

13. dive the Valiant, just outside the dive park (get permission from harbormaster first!)- $ 7 tank fill

14. look in the harbor waters for Julia Roberts’ wedding ring

15. get Big Olaf’s again…seriously, do it. – $4

Bob Jones City to The Sea Trail

Walked this path with a group of friends last week; it’s a fun, easy way to get outside. The entire path is paved and wildlife surrounds either side of the trail. It is flat the whole way, with no hills, so this walk was relaxing but still got me exercising and outside in nature.

The end of the trail also crosses through a golf course. There were people with strollers, cyclists, and others rollerblading or running, but most people I saw were simply walking the trail, enjoying the sunshine. The end of the trail also crosses through a golf course.


The trail is a mile and a half each way, going from a parking lot located near Avila Barn and opening up at Avila Beach, just before the Sea Life Center.


From SLO, we took the 101South, exited right at Avila Dr., and turned onto Ontario Rd. where signs led to the parking lot. There are bathrooms located in the parking lot, at the restaurant found about halfway into the trail, and at Avila Beach.