• Otter Views: Check one off the list

    by Tom Stevens

    A brother’s visit dovetailed with perfect early November weather to send us whale-watching aboard the “Princess Monterey.”

    “I want to check it off my list,” he explained.

    As checkoffs go, this one involved fewer logistics than some of Mike’s other adventures – swimming in the Nile, trekking in Nepal, river rafting through Costa Rican rain forest. All we had to do Tuesday was get to the Monterey Wharf by 9:30 a.m.

    Given his 40-year Bay Area residency, I was surprised Mike hadn’t already been on a whale watch somewhere along this coast. “All this time, and this is your first one?” I chided.

    “Don’t forget that Waikiki canoe ride,” he said. “You lived in Hawaii all those years, and you never went until I came out that time.”

    This was true. When you live and work in a tourist economy, it’s easy to look down upon activities pitched primarily to visitors. In Hawaii, the beach boy canoe ride is one of those. Like a fire knife luau dance or a mai-tai sunset cruise, it’s too “touristy” to appeal seriously to residents.

    I tried to explain this to Mike at the time, but he waved me off. “It’s on my bucket list,” he said, “and I don’t get out here very often. Come on. It’ll be fun.”

    So we went down to the beach concession at the Royal Hawaiian and booked a canoe ride. After a short wait, we and two other malihinis were issued paddles and life vests. Two beach boys steadied the canoe as we heaved ourselves aboard. The brawny steersman sat astern; his sinewy partner in the bow. They gave us a brief paddling lesson, but it was soon obvious they would need little help from us.

    We reached the takeoff zone without incident. The stroker and the steersman dug into the turn, and the big boat swung smartly around. Emerald green waves humped up in the near distance. “Huki!” the steersman commanded. As we four in the middle plied our paddles furiously, the beach boys at either end pulled long and strong.

    Soon we felt the canoe accelerating as the wave caught us from behind. The stern rose, the nose tilted down, and we shot shoreward in a joyous blast of whitewater. The wave carried us all the way back into the shallows, where we turned around and headed out for the next one.

    “That was a rush!” I laughed.

    “I told you,” Mike said.

    By the time we boarded the “Princess Monterey,” Mike’s whale watch idea was looking equally auspicious. Rowdy, windy weather had cancelled the Monday afternoon cruise. But by Tuesday morning, the bay was as smooth as a bolt of blue silk. Long ground swells lifted beneath us as we cleared the breakwater, but there was nary a whitecap in sight.

    Nary a whale, either. “That’s fine,” Mike said. “I’m happy just being out here on a day like this. Seeing a whale would be gravy.”

    Without making any promises, the boat’s aquatic specialist had nonetheless seemed sanguine about our whale-spotting prospects. “We saw humpbacks feeding yesterday morning off Moss Landing,” she announced over the PA system. “So we’ll head back over there today.”

    Her diesels throbbing, the Princess bore swiftly through the swells, sending blasts of spray outward and foamy waves caroming off the hull. Several dozen would-be whale watchers from India to Indiana lined the railings, our eyes searching the horizon, our legs planted in wide, bos’n-like stances. Call me Ishmael!

    We remarked on passing sights: sea lions, sea otters, sea birds, jellyfish, a pod of Risso’s dolphins, a bobbing cluster of orange crab pot buoys. As the twin stacks of the Moss Landing power plant hove into view a mile ashore, the cry went up: “Flukes at one o’clock!”

    And not just flukes. Many sets of flukes. Also baleen sheets, pectoral fins, dorsal fins, knobby heads, majestic rolling torsos, and great cathedral blasts of exhaled breath. The aquatic specialist surmised that a run of anchovies had drawn the humpbacks and a hyperactive throng of sea lions to this spot.

    Having only seen sea lions stacked up like sausages and bellowing from islets, buoys and breakwaters, I was totally unprepared for their feeding behavior. Racing along in dense packs, they shot through the ocean like torpedoes, at times porpoising into the air for extra speed. The churn they generated reminded me of the PG triathlon swim start.

    At one point the Princess idled at dead slow, and the soundtrack of wild nature stilled all conversation aboard. Waves slapped, birds cried, whales boomed, sea lions splashed in synchronized squadrons. Frenzied fish fountained among them with the sound of a steady silver rain.

    “I’ve never seen anything like this,” I said.

    Mike just smiled.

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    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 7, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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