I failed at surfing, but Elkhorn Slough’s otters changed my life

Marisa Messina has learned valuable lessons kayaking and watching otters.
Marisa Messina has learned valuable lessons kayaking and watching otters.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Marisa Messina, an MBA student at Stanford, wanted to be a surfer, but could never quite get vertical on her board. She stumbled into kayaking and fell in love with the harmony she observed among the creatures at Moss Landing’s Elkhorn Slough. Here, she takes us on her journey and urges us to imitate and learn from the animals, plants and algae that surround us.

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I wanted to be a surfer — wind in my hair, the ocean propelling me, nothing but a thin piece of fiberglass between me and the deep blue …

Turns out, it wasn’t my sport.

Even after my then-boyfriend (a surfer) skipped catching dozens of waves to help me.

Even after I practiced pop-ups on the floor of my bedroom for months.

Even after lessons from a professional surf teacher.

My body parts just would not put me vertical on a board at that pivotal moment when the wave caught me.

One afternoon, my frustration led me to rent a kayak at the shop I’d jogged past a million times — an unassuming storefront on Lake Avenue by the Santa Cruz Harbor.

From my cushioned kayak seat, I observed the kelp I’d loathed from my surfboard (it got tangled in my fins and leash) and realized with wonder that it was teeming with little crabs and snails and even fish hiding among its furls. I felt the ocean’s graceful power beneath me. I got a great workout. And at no point did I need to stand up.

I was hooked.

Marisa Messina is now a kayak guide at Elkhorn Slough.
(Via Marisa Messina)

But, paying $50-plus to rent a kayak every afternoon was not compatible with my student budget. As I returned my life jacket and paddle from that first outing, I asked the salesperson for alternative ideas. He suggested I get a used kayak and take a skills-and-rescue class, which would prepare me to paddle solo safely.

Conveniently, I found a class at the shop’s other location (Moss Landing) the coming Saturday and I signed up.

What a thrill to have found a sport I could “master” in just eight hours, including lunch.

In those class hours on Elkhorn Slough, I learned that kayaking is more than a biceps workout.

Yes, my arm muscles burned, but it was my eyes that were straining the most — trying to spot more nudibranchs (a type of sea slug) after my instructor pointed out one hiding along the dock’s underside. As it turns out, a kayak provides an unparalleled vantage to observe marine life — slugs, sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions, jellyfish, sea stars and an array of shore and waterbirds. I would never have guessed that such an abundance of life could be found in a town whose census-reported population is a mere 31.

Elkhorn Slough is home to diverse wildlife.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

My instructor had chosen a protected cove for us to practice falling out of (and getting back into) our kayaks, but when two otters drifted casually on their backs into our vicinity, he immediately steered us out of their way and toward a new spot where we wouldn’t disturb them or any other creatures who call Elkhorn Slough their home.

As we paddled away, he explained that the southern sea otter population is just barely reaching 1% of what it once was — before the fur trade of the late 1700s and early 1800s decimated these cuties’ population. Their recovery has been slowed by more recent human activities, such as fishermen hunting otters to protect their catch and numerous oil spills in the region.

I learned there is now hard work underway (including by the Monterey Bay Aquarium) to help rebuild the sea otter population and more broadly to reverse the deleterious effects humans have had on much of the marine flora and fauna of the Santa Cruz region.

“But it takes all of us, rowing in the same direction — pardon the pun,” my instructor said.

Fast forward, and I no longer attempt to surf. It would take time away from kayaking.

I adore observing and learning about the creatures who live in the same waters that I, encased in my plastic shell, get to temporarily inhabit. I’ve become a kayaking guide myself and lead tours of Elkhorn Slough on days I don’t have classes for my MBA.

My experience kayaking has affected my business school experience; I’ve chosen to focus on sustainability in business as a result of my time on the water.

Marisa Messina wanted to surf, until she tried kayaking.
Marisa Messina wanted to surf, until she tried kayaking.
(Via Marisa Messina)

Kayaking has transformed from an athletic pursuit into somewhat of a spiritual one for me. It gives me a window into the symbiotic coexistence between the animals and plants that is unlike anything we humans have achieved.

The relationship among sea otters, crabs, sea slugs, microalgae and eelgrass illustrates this well. A positive, self-sustaining cycle.

Something my surfing teacher had told me finally clicked: “Surfing is, at its best, an opportunity for harmony with the ocean.”

Turns out, the same is true for kayaking … and honestly, for existing as a resident of a place where the sound of the waves crashing is practically always within earshot.

In Santa Cruz, the opportunity — and necessity — of harmonizing our lives with the ocean and her creatures has never been more evident. Santa Cruz continues to grow, with increasing impact on the natural world around us.

Since starting to kayak, I’ve been inspired anew to catalyze positive impact. I’m motivated by success stories like the rebound of the brown pelican population after we stopped using the agricultural pesticide DDT (which was causing pelicans’ eggshells to crack before babies were ready to hatch).

It’s true that human beings have made a litany of mistakes when it comes to being stewards of our oceanic environment. But it’s also true that it’s not too late to make change for the better, and as individuals, we can make a difference.

Every plastic bag we decline at the grocery store. Every time we walk or roll rather than drive. Every shortened shower. Every longer-life lightbulb. It all adds up when it comes to keeping our marine neighbors healthy.

We can also learn from the creatures we are responsible for protecting. They can teach us about collaborative coexistence.

At the trailhead of one of my favorite nearby hikes is a simple sign: “Animals do not leave trash in the forest, people do. Please behave like animals.”

As we together keep adding to the collective story of our world, here’s to taking after the animals.

Marisa Messina is an avid outdoorswoman who loves bringing people and nature closer together. Currently earning her Master of Business Administration at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (where she’s focusing on sustainable business), Marisa spends her non-class hours working as a fellow for an early-stage venture capital fund, guiding tours with Kayak Connection, exploring new hiking trails and listening to the ocean.

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