The Melange that is Moss Landing, CA

When you learn to sail in the Monterey Bay, you hear a lot about Moss Landing. Sometimes you’re told to point a boat at the town because the unsightly smokestacks of its electrical plant are impossible to miss. Other times you hear about the Moss Landing harbor as being the only affordable place to moor a boat on the California Coast – and, unlike in Santa Cruz or Monterey, there’s no decade-long waiting list to do so. Often conversations about the accessibility of slips in Moss Landing include additional comments about how you’d never want to store your boat there, much less consider living on it in the harbor. In my opinion, that funny conglomeration of qualities alone earned an exploratory visit.

Moss Landing sits at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough, a large tidal marsh with exceptional biodiversity. Wetlands ecosystems are among the most threatened habitats in the world – in part because they aren’t as glamorous as jungles or high alpine areas, but also because they tend to be located in places where human beings like to live (e.g. coastal California). Much of Elkhorn Slough is protected as a National Marine Sanctuary, National Estuarine Research Reserve, or State Wildlife Management Area, and it is home to “more than 135 aquatic bird 550 marine invertebrate, and 102 fish species,” according to the Slough’s website.

In addition to housing sensitive species, Elkhorn Slough boasts an abundance of what’s known in the ecology business as “charismatic megafauna” – in this case, sea lions, harbor seals, and California sea otters. I can confidently say that I saw more of all of them in Moss Landing than I have ever seen before, and in concentrations that genuinely blew me away. It seems that the sea otters (predominantly male ones, according to the information booth) like to gather socially in one particular spot in the harbor mouth. I counted eighteen of them there at one point; many resting, others rolling and playing, still others grooming their dense coats. Meanwhile, on the ocean side of that same spit of land, harbor seals were playing in the choppy surf. Not one or two – more like ten to fifteen, all spread out along the breakline of the waves. An hour later, when I was exploring the shipyard, I found the hangout zone of the sea lions (not hard, given the amount of noise they make!) They have completely taken over a few of the floating docks in the harbor, protecting their territory with enough of a vengeance that they’ve earned warning signs on shore.

I think the sea lions alone might deter me from ever docking and living aboard a boat in Moss Landing, as I’m not sure I’d ever get any sleep. On top of that though, I did pick up on the somewhat “sketchier” vibe this harbor had, especially compared with a fancy marina like the one in Santa Cruz. Moss Landing is a working harbor; in fact, it is one of the few commercial fishing ports remaining in California. It has a decidedly functional feel, less friendly to the yacht set and more geared towards trawlers doing their daily work in the sea.

Towering over all of this is the Moss Landing Power Plant with its twin 500-meter smokestacks. It’s a natural gas fueled power plant, and one of the biggest in California. It uses over a billion gallons of Elkhorn Slough water each day to cool the turbines and produce the steam that assists in the creation of usable electricity.

I drove out past the power plant in an effort to access another wildlife viewing point on the slough. There was no way to visit the plant, and the preserve access point was closed for the day. Nevertheless, in classic exploraspective fashion, something else of interest turned up – a three-acre succulent nursery, called Succulent Gardens.

I adore succulents, and lately have very much been missing the thirty or forty plants I had to give away when I sold my house. Stumbling into a nursery with ten greenhouses full of succulents was like walking into Eden for me, and I stayed there wandering in the aisles until they kicked me out at closing time. I learned enough about “living pictures” (the succulent gardens you can hang on walls) to know that as soon as I move into a rental apartment, I am heading right back there to assemble mine.

When I do that, I’ll try out one of the restaurants in the little town of Moss Landing. Only one was open when I stopped by, as Mondays seem like they must be the town’s “recovery days” after the onslaught of weekend visitors makes an otherwise sleepy town into a temporary tourist mecca. A few galleries were open, and I was able to check out the funny combination of old boats, shacks, and well-restored turn-of-the century buildings that made up the two blocks of “downtown.” I think I’ll also get on one of the water-based slough tours, as they seem like the best way to get to know the biodiversity in the area beyond the obvious seals, sea lions, and otters.

I’m not sure I need to live in the Moss Landing harbor, but I’ll visit again. Where else can you find the melange of exceptional marine habitat, a power plant, a working harbor, and an extraordinary succulent nursery all within a couple mile radius? Not to mention all the strawberry farms…but we’ve discussed those already


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