by Katie Julius
I’ve always felt that “home”schooling was a bit of a misnomer. For our family, much of our learning doesn’t actually happen at home! We love to explore all of the opportunities for hands-on learning available to us in California and are always looking for fun, new places to visit. We know other homeschool families are, too.
Our new recurring blog feature, titled “Out & About” will highlight a place or places that may be of interest to homeschooling families in California.
While our family lives in Southern California, I wanted to share about our recent trip to Monterey, California. My daughter has always been very interested in aquatic animals. We’ve had passes to the Aquarium of the Pacific for several years and it’s one of her favorite places to go (more on that another time). This made it an easy decision last summer to choose to study “Swimming Creatures of the Fifth Day” from Apologia’s science curriculum for elementary students. Our culminating trip for this school year was a four-day trip to Monterey.
STOP ONE: Las Piedras Elephant Seal Rookery
The first day of our trip was mostly a travel day, driving from the Los Angeles area to Monterey. We had heard from several friends about the elephant seal rookeries along the coast in Central and Northern California. The closest of these to our route was just a few miles north of San Simeon.
As soon as we parked, we knew we were in for a treat as we could hear the sounds of the seals. There were about five or six on the beach below us. We didn’t realize just how worth it this side trip was until we walked toward the raised walkway above the beach where there were hundreds of elephant seals littered across the sand as far as we could see.
At that time of year, there were mostly juvenile males on the beach (check here to find out what you might see when you go) and we could have stayed and watched them for hours. The way they interacted with each other, you could tell they were testing their dominance with each other. The way they went “galumphing” across the sand with bodies their size (not even full grown) was just incredible!
It’s free to park and view the seals, but there are no restrooms. There is a visitor/information center back in San Simeon, but we arrived too late to visit.
STOP TWO: Monterey Bay Aquarium
I have always heard amazing things about the Monterey Bay Aquarium and knew that someday I would want to visit. While many hotels have a special deal with the aquarium, offering a two-day pass for the price of one, we only had one day to spend at the aquarium, so we paid the full admission price (I highly recommend the two-day tickets if you will be there that long – you can easily spend two days there!). There are also “homeschool” days where the aquarium offers discounted admission for homeschooling families. Check their website for dates and details.
Even as Aquarium of the Pacific “regulars”, we were impressed by the size of and variety of the exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s much larger than our “home” aquarium and the “Open Seas” exhibit was incredible! We were fortunate enough to visit while they had a sunfish (also known as a mola mola) on display and it was fascinating to watch such an amazing fish up close. We also made sure to watch their feeding presentation to see the massive school of sardines!
When you visit, be sure to download their app and sign up for the bay animal sighting alerts (when they spot whales, dolphins, otters, etc.). You can view these beautiful creatures using their binoculars on the outdoor deck. The app also has the daily schedule of feedings, presentations, and other educational activities. There are lots of hands-on activities and the volunteers are wonderful sources of information at the various stations throughout the aquarium. You can also download and print worksheets and other resources from the website to either help prepare for your visit or to complete while at the aquarium. My kindergarten daughter really enjoyed the checklists they offer for the various exhibits because it gave her something to do that didn’t require any help from an adult (these checklists have pictures of the animals rather than words).
STOP THREE: Elkhorn Slough Safari
After our day at the aquarium, we were ready to head out and see the wildlife in the Monterey area in their natural habitat. Just a 15-20 minute drive northeast is Moss Landing, home of the Elkhorn Slough.
We had purchased our safari tickets ahead of time on their website (highly suggested, but you can snag same day tickets if they’re available). The tour is between 1.5 and 2 hours. We were taken through the marina and up into the slough on a pontoon boat that seats about 30 people.
Our tour guide and boat driver were incredible, both with the kids on board (who were honorary “otter spotters”) and with the adults as they were extremely knowledgeable about the animals we saw and were able to answer any questions we asked. During our trip, we saw hundreds of sea lions, about 100 otters, including 7 babies (they’re adorable!), and a number of different bird species including the brown pelican. It was so neat to see them flying and then diving into the water in an attempt to catch fish.
A great plus for us on this trip was that they offered binoculars to use if we didn’t bring our own. They’re certainly not necessary though. Most things we saw didn’t require them which was good since my six-year-old monopolized them during most of the trip!
When traveling with kids, I highly recommend bringing snacks with you. They did offer us cookies and coffee/hot chocolate on our way back to the dock, but it was past lunch time by the time we arrived back and my daughter was hungry. Other than that, she was entertained the entire trip and took great pride in her assigned “otter spotter” job pointing out when she saw otters (and there were lots!).
Be sure to dress in layers as well. On the water, even in the slough, it can get pretty chilly! We went in late May and were dressed in long pants, jackets, scarves and gloves, and brought small blankets with us as well. I didn’t need a blanket, but my daughter wanted one part way through the trip
Also, they’ll tell you this too, but be sure to use the restrooms before boarding. There are none on board.
We had an amazing experience on our safari and it’s a must-do when you are in the area. I actually enjoyed this excursion more than the aquarium and took hundreds of pictures!
I can’t recommend these places enough to families! Whether you’re a local and can visit often or you make it a several day trip like our family did, all three of these places offer incredible opportunities for your family to learn about the animals that live in our oceans.
Do you have a place your family found to be a wonderful resource, we’d love for you to share with us and it may be featured in one of our “Out & About” posts.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is current and accurate as of the publication date. Always confirm admission costs, hours, and other details before heading “out & about.”
Katie Julius serves at the Editor for CHEA. She homeschools her soon-to-be first grade daughter in Southern California.