Ask a Californian where to see pelicans or seals and they’ll unhelpfully say, well, anywhere on the coast. But if you’ve seen the coast, you know it’s not wall-to-wall wildlife. True, pelicans, seals, sea lions and dolphins can show up anywhere. But if you want to have an almost sure thing of seeing them both, go to Marina Del Rey, just south of Venice Beach. By a fishing dock and around the harbor in general, you’ll see plenty of pelicans and a few sea lions.
Pelicans and sea lions are often found together, so where you find one you’ll usually see the other. The upside to brown pelicans being nearly wiped out in the 60s is that they’re closely studied. The pesticide DDT was making their eggshells to thin to survive incubation. The only viable colonies were in Florida. They spent 39 years on the endangered species list and were finally taken off in 2009, in February by the state and in November by the feds. The west coast has one of eight current (they’re always changing) subspecies, the California Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus). The wildlife service says the California kind of pelican is bigger than the rest and has dark feathers on the back of its neck. In the last year there have been inexplicable die-offs.
The only breeding colonies are on West Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands. They roost on the Channel Islands, especially Scorpion Rock off of Santa Cruz Island and near the lighthouse on East Anacapa. The research has roost populations up and down the coast. Near LA the big pelican hotspots are Santa Monica and Marine Del Rey. Santa Monica puts a lot of attention-starved exercisers and amusement park clutter between you and the wildlife.
Marina del Rey, though, is just about perfect for seeing pelicans and sea lions. (And also party yachts). You drive down Fiji Way to its end at Fisherman’s Village, a mall that was once twee and is now a little ragged and demands parking validation. The trick is to walk to the shore and turn left, down to the bait cages, next to a boat called the Mona Lisa. That’s the tip I got from a sweet senior couple I found with a pair of binoculars. The woman told me they love coming because every day it’s different: one day eight sea lions will bathe sun themselves on the dock; the next day none will be there.
The fishing dock has giant vats of live bait fish in nets the size of a sofa. The pelicans, seals, gulls and snowy egrets know this and lurk, hoping for a handout or scrap they can steal. As I walked down to the dock I heard one of the fishermen yelling at the pelicans “Get out of here!” I feared they’d have the same attitude towards me just hanging out, but they were all really nice. Though the guy who runs the pier wouldn’t let me buy a scoop of bait fish to feed the pelicans.
It’s weird seeing the delicate and usually elusive snow egret hanging around a dock. It’s like seeing a ballerina hard on her luck pushing through the line at McDonald’s and ordering off the dollar menu. The “snowies” let me get within feet of them and their creepy yellow eyes and feet. Then one saw a bait fish left on the dock, grabbed it, only to have it stolen by a gull.
While I was there the sea lions popped their heads up in the boat channel quite a few times. The fishermen all thought they were wily. They’d hang out all day, sometimes lurking just below the dock and wait for the fishermen to catch something good, the steal it from the line. The fishermen do seem to enjoy the game and sometimes throw scraps in the water. The fishing seemed pretty good; while I was there guys caught barracuda, but threw them back.
More pelicans hung out far from people, in the Ballona Creek–one of those concrete lined drainage creeks where car chases always happen. I saw them driving on Culver over a complicated knot of an intersection bristling with no parking, no turning, no walking signs. It took half an hour to figure out how to park near the Villa Marina Marketplace mall, then walk along Lincoln Boulevard, under a really sketchy bridge to get to the concrete creek. About a dozen pelicans sunbathed on a yellow floating barrier, along with twice as many anhingas or cormorants. Turns out, a bike trail from Fisherman’s Village leads here.
Also nearby is the Ballona Creek Wilderness, which gives out mixed messages: one sign gives rules for dogs on the reserve, another says nobody can go in except mainanence workers. Yet another sign warned of rattlesnakes, so I went in. Coots, ducks, egrets swam around a fresh water pool, surrounded by chapparal. Worth seeing if it’s open, but the Marina Del Rey pier is still the best bet.
Where to See Seals and Sea Lions
Where to Find Wildlife in California
How to Find Weird Birds