• Otter Views: Droning On

    Rocky Point restaurant didn’t do an Easter brunch per se, but a late morning breakfast on its outdoor terrace amounted to the same thing. A friend’s birthday coincided with Easter Week this year, so a Big Sur foray on Sunday marked both occasions.

    We reached the restaurant before the meal service began, but the hostess led us to a table anyway. “It’s a nice place to wait,” she said. There was no arguing with that. The morning was at once sunny, warm, windy and foggy, if that makes any sense, and a ragged west swell was hammering in along the coast.

    I had been to Rocky Point only once before, on a serene day, so I was unprepared for the spectacle visible and audible from the terrace. Every few minutes, a set of huge waves would march in out of the fog to belt the point’s namesake rocks. After sending a seltzer blast of spray high into the air, each wave would rebound back to sea, effectively doubling the height and fury of the next incoming one.

    Soon the terrace resounded with the shouts of arriving patrons trying to gauge for photographer friends the optimal capture moment for each spray burst zenith. “Okay, get ready. Here it comes. Now! No, wait! Now! Oh, no, too late!”

    Because each wave ran in diagonally along the point, you had two chances. The first blast of spray erupted off three tall pinnacles, filling the air with creamy geysers that trailed away in a fine salt fume. If you mistimed that blast, the same wave would atomize again moments later on a smaller rock. This prompted a fair amount of rapid swiveling and refocusing among the shooters.

    The spectacle of wind-whipped, house-high waves booming into craggy stone battlements was only part of the show. As the fog drifted in and out and then spun away in ghostly patches, sunlight streamed down through the holes. Suddenly the salt mist twirled and sparkled like Scheherazade, and the ocean turned a vivid turquoise. Once breakfast arrived, I had to remember to eat.

    My friend’s dog had been waiting patiently in the car, so we drove on to Garrapata for a windy dog walk along the bluffs. There the wave show continued unabated, as big sets wrapped around offshore islets and steamed into the bay. At one overlook near the water, waves meeting from two directions formed a tall, thick wedge that trapped a box car full of air as it broke. Each wave went off like a bomb, thundered into the rocks, then ricocheted seaward for more mischief.

    Parting ways in Carmel, I wished my friend a happy birthday, patted the dog goodbye, and followed the surf back to PG. Asilomar and Spanish Bay were still unrideable, but Lover’s Point was hosting occasional head-high sets. It was only mid-afternoon, so I tugged on my wetsuit, donned my fins, and swam out. The break was crowded, but everybody seemed happy to enjoy an unseasonable Easter swell.

    At one point between sets, I heard a soft, high-pitched whine that grew gradually louder, as if approaching from a distance. “Damn,” I thought. “Tinnitus has got me at last.” But then something zipped into view, flew swiftly across the water, and stopped in mid-air. It hovered 20 feet over the water and 10 yards shoreward of the takeoff zone.

    In the foamy hiatus before the next set rumbled through, I could see the machine was square or rectangular and about the size of a dresser drawer. Four small rotors mounted at its corners kept it aloft, and a small black camera peered out from its undercarriage. Whoever controlled it from shore had a steady hand on the joystick, for the drone scarcely wobbled as it awaited a video-worthy wave.

    One of these at length swept in around the point, and a surfer dutifully took off on it. The drone sped backward through the air, presumably keeping the surfer in focus as he rocketed off the lip, head-dipped into the tube, then zig-zagged in toward the breakwater. Long before that surfer paddled back out, the photo-drone had zipped back into position over the lineup, ready to immortalize the next takeoff, cutback and head dip.

    Alternately treading and swallowing water, I marked Easter Sunday, 2014, as my first encounter with a drone. It was so sudden and unexpected I didn’t know quite how to respond. Others in the water seemed equally surprised. Some waved at the quadricoptor, some cursed at it, and others just watched it hover. Then a monster cleanup set roared in, and aviation novelty gave way to marine survival.

    The drone zipped away and reappeared two or three more times in the next 20 minutes, then presumably returned to its landing pad. It was only a brief, benign encounter on a happy afternoon, but it felt like a glimpse into an uneasy future. Hackers, computer firms and surveillance agencies already compromise our privacy, but they do so unobserved. In the coming drone world, we’ll see that eye in the sky, and it will see us. So surf well, young grasshopper.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on April 25, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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    This is the Heal the Bay Beach Report Card for Monterey Peninsula beaches, which reports water quality grades, or when relevant, weather advisories. An A to F grade is assigned based on the health risks of swimming or surfing at that location. Look at the "dry" grade for all days except those "wet" days during and within 3 days after a rainstorm. Click here for more information on the Beach Report Card. Click the name of the beach when it pops up for more details, or choose a beach below.

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