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!

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.

Native Plants of SLO County: Happy California Native Plants Week!

Happy California Native Plant Week! In celebration of this week (April 17-23)  “dedicated to the appreciation, education, and conservation of California’s fabulous landscape,” as the California Native Plant Society so beautifully puts it, here is a short snippet of some of the native plants you can find in San Luis Obispo County! Also, if you want to participate in the Native Plant Week festivities, visit the San Luis Obispo Botanic Gardens on Saturday April 22nd to learn more about native plants in garden.


photo credit: briweldon

Annual Hairgrass

photo credit:Carol W. Witham

California Poppy 

photo credit: docentjoyce

Yellow Wildflowers

taken on Madonna Mountain


Mustard Plant

Telegraph Weed

photo credit: lynnwatson

Seaside Daisy

photo credit:

Spotted Hideseed

photo credit: ron wolf

Milk Thistle

photo taken on Ontario Ridge

These are just a few of my favorites. There are thousands of native plants you can find along the Central Coast!

A little jog on Johnson Ranch Trail

Well, I just got back from exploring another trail, Johnson Ranch. It was a nice, easy trail in the grasslands next to the freeway and South Higuera St. in SLO. Unfortunately I forgot my camera this time, so there are no pictures to share.

We got off the 101 South at Higuera and right there was a nice little parking lot at the start of the trail.

This trail is very people-friendly with a big bulletin marking the beginning and displaying a map of the trail and describing the history behind this Open Space path. All along the trail are little creeks and footbridges crossing them, and on any slippery or muddy parts cement blocks are laid across the path to help hikers keep their footing. Every so often signs marked the trail, warning about conditions, or pointing the right direction. Like I said, this hike is very welcoming to people.

The one picture I took with my phone before we set off on the trail...

It was a fairly short hike, there are two loops, but we only did the first big one. The path is easy for hikers, and we decided to run it. Johnson trail is awesome for cross-country running; we saw many other joggers and runners out there, with dogs and families accompanying them. There were people of all ages on the trail this morning.

The only downside to this trail is that for a portion of the time it is right next to the freeway, so any “natural escape” sounds are muffled by the loud noise of cars rushing by. However there is still plenty of wildlife, including cows (watch out for droppings!!), lizards, birds, poppies, wildflowers, and keep a look out for wild pigs- I saw lots of signs warning about them!

Tomorrow I plan to go back and try running the full two loops of the trail!

Ontario Ridge and Sycamore Crest Trail, Avila Beach

The view from Ontario Ridge

I was told about Ontario Ridge by another hiker we met at the top of Madonna Mountain and decided it would be a fun new trail to try. The hike was a total of 4.73 miles (check out the googlemap snapshot to see the trail loop from above!), and we started at 12:50 p.m. and got back to the car around 3:50 p.m.

google map of hike

We parked at Pirate’s Cove and started the hike through the gate that dead-ends the road. This brush-filled path led us to a cul-de-sac street lined with ocean-view mansions and a walking path.

Following the long row of grand houses, we turned left onto shell beach drive, where there was a little parking area. This was the beginning of the real hike.

The beginning of Ontario Ridge Trail

The start was a short but very steep climb up to the ridge that followed some telephone lines to the left side of the trail. The entire Ontario Ridge hike is literally on the “ridge” of the hill, and follows the steep dips, and peaks of the ridge. While the terrain is challenging, the view is spectacular. To our left we saw the ocean and a bird’s eye view of shell beach and all the large homes adjacent to the hill. And to our right, trees shading the ground and plants covering the hillside.

bottles should be in recycling, not on the trails! grrrr....

We saw a tiny Monterey Ring-Neck snake on the trail, and lots of pretty flowers along with the occasional butterfly.

Monterey Ring-Necked snake photo credit: Brad Alexander

In the middle of the hike we passed through what looked like a radio tower of some sort.

After a few miles along the ridge, the path came to a fork. We decided to go right, heading gradually downhill into the shady tree-lined path. There were quite a few other hikers on this path, and even a couple biking. Halfway down we found a bench at the side of the trail. Eventually we found ourselves at the bottom, where, much to our surprise, we discovered that the trail ended at the Avila Hot Springs.

So, we turned around and headed back up, taking a little break at the bench on the way.

Sycamore Crest Trail

It turns out that the shady trail we turned onto at the fork is a different trail called Sycamore Crest trail, and is three quarters of a mile each way.

The resting bench

Back at the top and once again in the afternoon sun, we took the left side of the fork. This took us straight down the steep hill to the parking lot of Pirate’s Cove.

The hill down to Pirate's Cove

Going down the hill was a slow process, complete with a few slips and slides along the way.

yellow wildflowers with Avila in the background

But we had the ocean in front of us, a view of Avila to the right, and tall yellow flowers lining the trail the whole way down.

not quite the yellow brick road...

At the very bottom we hopped over some low barbed wire, but I’m pretty sure that there is a gate located a little further to the right at the bottom of the path, away from the parking lot.

There are three places that you can park if you want to do the entire hike:

– Pirate’s Cove (that’s where I parked)

– Shell Beach Road at the start of Ontario Ridge

– Avila Hot Springs (next to the green bridge that goes over the road)

Best part: all the parking is free!

Don’t forget sunscreen and a camera, the hike is exposed to the sun but the views are amazing!

Little Falls, Big Adventure

To celebrate the Cesar Chavez holiday, my roommate and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful Thursday weather and go for a hike to some waterfalls near Lopez Lake.

This was my first visit to the falls, so the drive there was half the adventure.

Little Falls Trail

After driving past quintessentially central coast vineyards and around Lopez Lake, we turned right onto a skinny road called Hi Mountain Road, then headed past the end of the lake, turning left onto Upper Lopez Canyon Road- an even skinnier, windier drive. This road traveled up and around the hills for about six miles. The view from here was absolutely spectacular (and a bit frightening!)

Eventually the road took a steep turn downhill and we kept driving until we hit a turn in the road. We found that at this point the straight path was actually private property and not the right road to the falls. Instead, we had to turn right and begin the next part of our journey- on unpaved paths.

For a while we drove through lush, green tree canopy shading the road. Horses caroused the ranches on either side of the road, and we rolled down the sunroof and hummed along to mellow tunes on the radio.

Crossing four little streams gave way to bouts of laughter as water splashed up next to my car. At that point, we thought that was the extent of any water-crossing adventure for the day.

…That is, until the road hit an actual creek- we bounced along over the rocks and water, screaming and laughing even more. This happened at least four more times, each time an adrenaline rush leading to fits of laughter on the other side. The creeks were a couple feet deep, some wider than others. (One creek we literally had to drive upstream to get to the other side of the road.)

sign marking the beginning of Little Falls hiking trail

About 1.5 miles of off-roading later, we saw a sign on the right of the road that read “Little Falls,” so we pulled over, jumped out of the car, and began the second part of our adventure.

One of the creeks we crossed

The hike itself was fairly easy, and not very long. We splashed through about four  ankle-deep streams, cooling off our feet in the crisp water, and then found our first little waterfall. It was tall but delicate, and ran down the slate rock in such a way that it made the most tranquil sound while falling into the small pool below.

The second waterfall on the hike

We turned left and trekked up a steep path following the creek on our left below, until approaching a the top of a bigger waterfall. This one was powerful, and plunged into what looked like a fairly large pool about 35 feet below. Further upstream, little waterfalls fell into tiny ponds, all traveling towards the larger waterfall.

To our right, massive walls of slate rock towered above us, the white rock contrasting the dense greenery surrounding the falls.

The entire hike was relaxing and full of nature. We saw salamanders, California poppies, bugs bugs bugs, and incredible geography in the rock structure.

This hike was not even the extent of what the falls offers, and I am excited to come back and explore deeper into the trails, including Big Falls, which is a couple more creek crossings down the road.

Driving Directions:

To get here from San Luis Obispo, we took the 101 South, exited at Grand/ 227 in Arroyo Grande, and turned left heading on the 227. This took us around Lopez Lake until we turned right onto Hi Mountain Rd. Further down, turn left onto Upper Lopez Canyon Rd. Then the real adventure begins. The pavement ends after about six miles, and after some creek crossings and about 2 miles, you will see the sign for Little Falls.

Some tips:

  • bring bug repellant!!
  • there is no phone service here, so don’t rely on phones for navigation
  • a car with 4-wheel-drive is highly recommended
  • wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet
  • there is a lot of brush, so wear clothes that will protect you (like long pants)

Happy exploring!

9 birds you’ll find on the central coast

1. California Quail

photo by Joyce- elfin.forest

2. Pelican

Pelican- photo by mikebaird

3. Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl- photo by brendan.lally

4. Western Seagull

Western Seagull- photo by jessicafm

5. Great Egret

Great Egret- photo by mikebaird

6. Red Tailed Hawk

Red Tailed Hawk- photo by badjoby

7. Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper- photo by barloventomagico

8. Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark- photo by Terry Spivey

9. Blue Heron

Blue Heron- photo by mikebaird