The waters of Elkhorn Slough match a calm, gray sky early on a Sunday morning. A sea otter swims on its back, inches away from me. The otter is occupied, taking big chews of something in its forepaws. Not wanting to bother the otter (and prohibited from doing so by the Marine Mammal Protection Act), I pedal backward on my hydrobike to give it some distance. I move silently, without even the sound of quiet splashing.
The hydrobike is the newest rentable watercraft to grace Moss Landing Harbor, and consists of a bicycle frame flanked by two 10-foot-long pontoons. There’s a rudder steered with the handlebars and a propeller powered by pedaling. Between the two pontoons, a rider can look down at the water below.
Marc Colman, owner of Monterey Bay Hydrobikes, tells me and my riding partner what to watch out for, starting with what to avoid: “Mud, seaweed, there’s a lot to get stuck on. Avoid Seal Bend, because there’s a football field’s worth of eelgrass that’s 30-60 inches long.”
Then he teases the fun stuff: Just this morning he saw a baby otter with its mother and about two dozen sea lions. Last week, a whale.
“Add that to the 350 different bird species found here, and you have a great show,” Colman says.
Colman discovered hydrobikes on a trip to a lake in the Sierra Nevada, and found a way to get on the water that didn’t exacerbate his back pain (sitting in a kayak hurts). He opened Monterey Bay Hydrobikes in February 2016, and hopes to nearly double his inventory to 13 bikes this year.
When I step onto the edge of a pontoon, the hydrobike wobbles. I think of the steep $100 rescue fee and my lack of experience in water sports and I’m scared, but reason settles my nerves when I remember how Colman – who is taller and heavier than me – shifted his weight while demonstrating how to clean the propeller of any tangled plants. Even leaning down, he stayed afloat.
I move on to my next worry: My wallet or phone might slip in the water, but Colman points to a convenient cubby fixed to the handlebars. (Inside, there’s also a laminated guide of bird species and a pair of binoculars which I wear around my neck.)
Depending on the level of pedaling, hydrobiking can be a soothing, scenic ride or a serious workout. I start slow and let the current push me toward red and green buoys.
Just moments after starting I spot my first wildlife: an orange jellyfish drifting under me. A few minutes later, a school of silver anchovies sparkle under the water like quarters in a shopping mall fountain.
Sea otters twirl nearby. I heed Colman’s counsel to stay away from the protected marine mammals to avoid disturbing them. (His talk on respecting wildlife: “Stay five kayak-lengths away from them. No pointing, no yelling, and especially no circling around them. Nothing likes to be circled.”
Twenty minutes in and already I’ve seen several more jellyfish glimmering transluscent just under the surface, a flock of pelicans standing proudly on rocks, and more otters than I would’ve guessed. By now, I’m so confident in my bike’s stability that I take my hands off the handlebars to scribble notes on the animals I see.
A lonely harbor seal catches my attention. I realize I’ve drifted toward a white buoy, about a mile up the slough, failing to heed Colman’s advice: It’s Seal Bend. Sure enough, I look down to see an underwater lawn, with bright green strands of eelgrass swaying below.
As I cautiously pedal away, toward the edge of the marsh, a few strands of grass tangle on my propeller. Now I’m forced to test my balance. I stand on the pontoon – wobbling again – and have to crouch and stretch my arm down into the water to bring the propeller up. I make my move and I’m above water, propeller in hand. I pick off dangling strands of eelgrass, then throw them back into the water. The “repair” process takes less than a minute, and I’m still upright.
By now, at 9am, the kayak shops have opened and with that comes groups of kayakers who look curiously at me, texting and hydrobiking.
When we return from our two-hour ride, I confess to Colman that this is my first time doing any watersport activity.
“That’s my favorite part about this business,” he says, laughing. “To get people who are scared of swimming, or can’t kayak, and watch them become experts. It opens up a whole new world to them.”