One Way to Go on a Wildlife Safari: Take an Electric Boat Through Elkhorn Slough

This article was originally published in the Monterey County Weekly.

It’s early on a Thursday morning, and Moss Landing Harbor is humming with activity. Seagulls flock in circles, cawing and diving at the water, and harbor seals sun themselves on the marshy flats exposed by low tide. Tourists don life jackets and listen to briefings about kayaking around wildlife over the growl of diesel engines, while Joonya Lopez unplugs his boat, the Selkie II, from an outlet on shore.

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A large part of Moss Landing is Elkhorn Slough, the second-largest saltwater marsh in California behind San Francisco Bay. Home to 80 species of fish and hundreds of native and migratory birds, it’s a place for birdwatchers to see long-billed curlews, sandpipers, tree swallows and red-shouldered hawks.

“The range of habitat in our area – from the redwoods in the mountains to the marshes and the submarine canyon – they create a diversity of wildlife that you can’t find anywhere else in California,” says Dave Feliz, manager of the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. “On any given day there could be 120 southern sea otters in the slough, feeding on clams, innkeeper worms and fish.”

Those keen on getting up close and personal with the local wildlife have long opted for renting a kayak because the slow and silent approach allows visitors to view them without disturbing their natural behavior. But these days, there’s a higher-tech option in the mix: Whisper Charters’ 21-foot electric boat, the Selkie II, with an engine so subtle that it feels and sounds as if there’s no motor at all.

Powered by 16 deep-cycle batteries, the Selkie II maxes out at six knots, affording its passengers the chance to casually check out sea otters, sea lions, and if they’re lucky, bat rays and leopard sharks. The electric engine powers a small and virtually noiseless propeller – barely louder than a whisper and seemingly quieter than the paddle stroke of a kayak – which means minimal disturbance to the wildlife.

Lopez, owner and operator of Whisper Charters and a native of the Big Island of Hawaii, is no stranger to boat life. Growing up, he was always out on the water with his father and uncles, who were avid fishermen. An entrepreneurial bent and a passion for being on the water drove him to purchase Whisper Charters (where he had worked since 2013) almost two years ago. He keeps the spirit of the islands alive by warmly welcoming his guests with Hawaiian music on the Aloha Sunset Cruise.

“It’s one of the best decisions I ever made,” Lopez says. “Elkhorn Slough is perfect. I get to be out on the water all the time and show my guests the local wildlife. Why would I want to go anywhere else?”

On a three-mile trip up the winding Elkhorn Slough, which takes about an hour and a half, sights include dozens of harbor seals and sea otters (including some with pups), great blue herons, snowy egrets, countless gulls, sandpipers, Forster’s terns, double-crested cormorants, Western grebes and many more-difficult-to-identify species.

The silent approach of the Selkie II isn’t the only advantage – the electric motor means no carbon emissions, a big plus for an eco-tourism company.

“This boat has zero emissions,” Lopez says. “We can have the windows open and passengers won’t smell any fumes, because there are none. And best of all, we don’t disturb the animals because we don’t make any noise.”

Each night, when Lopez ties up the Selkie, he plugs a giant power cord to an outlet on the dock to charge 16 batteries. Electricity is included in the standard slip fee any boat owner pays to dock in the harbor, and while Lopez hasn’t seen an itemized accounting of just how much power is needed to charge his boat, he says it’s comparable to the cost of powering a liveaboard boat.

“They use shore power for their microwaves, refrigerators, televisions and lights,” he said. “We don’t use much more than that to charge these batteries.”

At the end of our trip – roughly seven miles of cruising – Lopez checked the control panel as he plugged in the charging cable. “We only used about 5 percent of the battery,” he said. “I used to pay $1,000 a week in fuel to run a boat. But this? It costs me nothing.”

Whisper Charters has been certified as a green business by the California Green Business Network. Feliz also admires eco-conscious improvements by commercial operators, noting green business practices are in keeping with the mission of the reserve.

“Elkhorn Slough isn’t like other estuaries in California with the condos and boat slips – people thought to save it,” he says. “Our boat and kayak operators, they’re cognizant of the precious resource they have and we consider them partners in our endeavor to protect Elkhorn Slough.”