Just when you think you’ve heard it all a conversation can shake your world. Bob Pooley photographs epic animals underwater and in the sky. He’s always full of stories but one night, during a backyard dinner, his words sent a primal chill up my spine.

I was… just outside the initial fence and turned my back to the lioness. She was 3 feet away and got pissed and growl/roared as she charged at me. That roar instantly shook me to my core. If sharks roared… I’d give-up diving.

He was in San Diego’s eastern reaches at the Alpine Animal Rescue and Sanctuary, an hour’s drive from the beach!

This is a sponsored post but as always opinions and suggestions are my own.

Elaine hawk watching in San Diego

Elaine hawk watching in San Diego

San Diego is many things but ‘wild’ is  most often applied to its nightlife. As busy as the city may seem, there are many wild San Diego adventures across the spacious county. Here are a few favorites:

  • Listen for Red Tailed Hawks

These are two of the epic animals that anyone can enjoy but you have to pay attention. Red Tailed hawks and other raptors often perch on street lights, even along freeways. Their call is singular – a short high-pitched scree and they usually fly in pairs, coasting on updrafts or circling prey from on high. It’s chilling to witness one dart down, talons extended to nail an unsuspecting prey. As a gardener, I’m happy to see them in the neighborhood where gophers and other rodents can be a nuisance.

  • Watch for Wild Parrots

A phenomenal PBS video, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, first brought my attention to the California phenomenon. The flock of wild South American parrots transformed the life of homeless musician, Mark Bitner and alerted me to their presence in Southern California. I’m sure that some people in Ocean Beach find these palm tree squatters a noisy nuisance but for the rest of us, following the bright green squawkers as they approach and depart quickly overhead, is a thrill.

Pelicans roost on cliffs in San Diego

Pelicans roost on cliffs in San Diego

  • Shorebirds Galore

There are many trails close to the waterways where herons, ducks and migratory geese hunt. It’s easy to find them. Pull over along the south side of Sea World Drive and park near the eastern area late in the afternoon. In north county there’s a river walk south of the Del Mar Fairgrounds with trails close to nesting osprey as well as other epic animals including rabbits and ground squirrels.

  • Pinnipeds, Cormorant Clusters and Pelican Perches

The trail along the cliffs of La Jolla is famous for beautiful views (I’ve included them in this earlier post about local trails.) It’s also a popular spot for visitors, mostly notably the pinniped (flipper-footed marine mammals like sea lions and seals) and the winged kind. The curving bay is also a marine preserve which has cut boating traffic over the past ten years. Now, Children’s Pool, created for families to enjoy, is off limits during pupping season as chubby seals loll and play. Along the cliffs near Sunny Jim’s Cave, it’s easier to get close and marvel at the ease with which they jump out of the water onto rocks warmed by the sun.

Tall Eucalyptus trees fill with dark cormorants in the evenings and pelicans roost in nooks along the ridge. This is one show that’s fascinating year round.

A group of kayakers prepare to enter the caves.

A group of kayakers prepare to enter the caves.

  • Kayak the Caves

In La Jolla Village there are numerous shops catering to bicyclists and kayakers. Walk to the beach and look south to the cliffs. Most days you’ll spy pods of kayaks scooting towards the caves and sea lions. It’s an easy adventure and when the tide is right, it’s a rush to flow through the caves on a wave surge into the channel beyond and look up at basking sea lions.
  • Snorkel With Harmless Leopard Sharks

Contrary to everything Shark Week touts, most sharks are not dangerous for humans. It takes some understanding. The bottom-dwelling Leopard Sharks in La Jolla Cove school in the shallows. The water is a natural incubator and there’s plenty of food in the sand of the protected preserve. Clams, crabs, fish and fish eggs are close; shrimp and squid are a bit further out. Rent snorkel gear and see the spotted creatures from above. They don’t mind being watched but will scoot away if you try diving down.

  • Whale Watching

Whales migrate up and down the Pacific Coast between Mexico and Alaska which puts San Diego along their route year round. Humpback, minke, and fin whales can be spotted year round; grey whales are abundant during the winter months from mid-December to mid-March. Blue whales are more rare but they do pass by during the summer.
Big ticket tours like whale watching, bay cruises, and kayak trips can be expensive. The San Diego Explorer Pass can help to extend your vacation budget.
  • Dolphin Spotting

Admittedly there are no guarantees but beach hikers along the cliff trails of the Torrey Pines Park often spy dolphins in the waves. I’ve watched them play in the breakers more than once. If you take the clifftop trail and stop at viewpoints you might spot whales spouting as well.
  • Kelp Forests Full of Epic Animals

Certified divers willing to brave the chilly waters off the San Diego coast boast often about the wonders in our kelp forests. Just watching the sunlight filter through the swaying fronds is magical; spying giant bass and playful seals is all the more so. Closer to shore you can spot the State’s Official Fish, bright orange Garibaldi.
No dive license? No problem. Rent wet suits and all your gear locally and step into the waters along the jetties. I’ve spotted huge nudibranchs and Garibaldi, crabs and other critters in the shallows. The water’s a bit warmer than deep too.
Seals spar a few feet away from hikers

Seals spar a few feet away from hikers

  • Cabrillo Tide Pools

Tide pools and striated cliffs make this a local favorite, especially in fall and winter during dramatic  low tides. Look low and the shallow pools are full of small, epic animals like hermit crabs and sea anemone.  The tide pools and cliff walks are down a steep road and past the ‘new’ lighthouse. Parking is slim but people venture in and out pretty quickly. It’s a windy place and best with good, waterproof hiking shoes. Note that there’s no cell phone service at the base of the trail and it’s a long walk up to the Cabrillo Museum.

I hope these suggestions inspire your San Diego adventures with epic animals. If you’d prefer more guidance San Diego is also home to an award-winning Zoo, Safari Animal Park and South Coast Nature Center. You might even get close to a lioness, like my friend Bob, at the Alpine Animal Rescue and Sanctuary, 

This is a sponsored post but as always opinions and suggestions are my own.