I’ve been spending too much time in cities recently – too much, that is, for someone whose main aim in life is to keep out of the urban jungle as much as possible.
But a recent trip to Monterey – one of my all-time favourite haunts – has made me think again. It suddenly dawned on me that I’ve never had a bad week of wildlife-watching in this Californian coastal town. Yet I can’t even count the number of times I’ve arrived at top wildlife sites around the world only to be faced with days or even weeks of disappointment.
For the ultimate wildlife adventure I love to pick one of many seafood restaurants along Fisherman’s Wharf, a wooden pier standing on stilts in the middle of the harbour, and ask for a table overlooking the water. The Wharf is a tourist trap at heart but I’ve seen more wildlife here in a couple of hours, between mouthfuls of caesar salad and clam chowder, than I’ve seen trudging around many well-known national parks.
I know there are never any guarantees in wildlife-watching. It’s not like watching football (the players are always going to turn up), waiting for another American environmental disaster (you’re never going to have to wait very long), or trainspotting (though there are probably no guarantees if you’re watching British trains). The challenge is all part of the fun. But I’m beginning to think I’ve had more than enough ‘fun’ to last a lifetime and, just once in a while, a few guaranteed close encounters wouldn’t go amiss.
Admittedly, Fisherman’s Wharf can be a little noisy at times – thanks to the contorted gatherings of California sea lions lounging around beneath the pier, barking incessantly like a pack of dogs hounding a posse of postmen. But few people complain about having such charismatic and entertaining animals as neighbours.
The Wharf is also one of the best places in the world to see a much quieter and less-demonstrative marine mammal – the sea otter. Floating past the restaurant windows, the otters are too busy feeding themselves to notice the dozens of human diners watching their every move. They eke out a living in the bustling harbour, along with common seals, pelicans, cormorants, grebes and a host of other wildlife.
But Monterey is by no means alone in harbouring a menagerie of urban wildlife. I’ve spent a surprising amount of time nature-watching in towns and cities around the world: polar bears from my hotel in Churchill, northern Canada; killer whales from an office near the top of a Seattle skyscraper; southern right whales from Cape Town’s busy Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, in South Africa; and thousands of migrating birds from a bar in Gibraltar. I’ll never forget braving horrendous traffic for several hours to get to one of the world’s largest turtle-nesting beaches on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. And I’ve just returned from the Indian city of Guwahati, the largest commercial and industrial centre in Assam, where I was rewarded with spectacular views of Ganges river dolphins in the Brahamaputra River.
I’m not the only one reviewing my innate disregard for urban wildlife. I was chairman of the judging panel for last year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, which attracted no fewer than 17,000 entries from nearly 60 countries. And guess what? The winning image was taken in a small suburban park in Rome.
Italian photographer Manuel Presti beat competitors who had dived beneath the Antarctic ice, trekked through jungles in central Africa and survived blizzards in the wilds of Japan – by venturing no more than a few kilometres from his urban home. His breathtaking image of a peregrine falcon in pursuit of thousands of swirling starlings was considered the best entry.
It’s all a matter of perception. An urban setting may be too lacklustre, predictable and sanitised for many wildlife-watchers – certainly not as thrilling or stimulating as ice-diving, camping or wilderness trekking. But it does have its own special rewards. And, best of all, it is readily accessible. For me, the two fox cubs currently playing on the pavement below my office window – in Bristol city centre – are proof enough.
Zoologist Mark Carwardine is an award-winning wildlife writer, photographer and broadcaster.
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