• Otter Views: Season’s first swell arrives

    by Tom Stevens

    A creature of habit, I follow the same morning routine: yawn, stretch, dress, and pad out to the front porch to see where the delivery guys tossed The Herald.

    Because the ocean is visible from the porch, I also cast a ritual glance seaward. For the past 200 mornings, the view has been the same: flat water matted by Rastafarian dreadlocks of kelp.

    On Monday, something looked different. The dreadlocks were still there, but for the first time in months, they were moving. Out at Lover’s Point, thick dark waves, pillows of foam and seltzer blasts of spray announced the season’s first real swell.

    Leaving the paper on the porch, I set off on a short coastal walk. It was a windless morning, chilly but not cold. With no breeze to ruffle it, the water looked silky in the pearly light. Mats of kelp lifted and fell as the waves rolled beneath them.

    It was barely day, but already three surfers bobbed in the Lover’s Point lineup. As if alerted by some whistle only surfers can hear, several more arrived within minutes. Some stood in the backs of pickup trucks to scan the surf. Others jogged their boards out to the point and dove boldly in off the rocks.

    Soon a dozen black-suited wave riders strung out along the cliff like beads on a necklace. As each new wave wrapped around the point, one or two stroked for it while the others paddled out of their way. Perhaps because the season’s first swell caught them unprepared, a few surfers got rudely catapulted. But those in the right place at the right time paddled into roller coaster takeoffs, rocketed through head-high tubes, then carved long, soupy crescents through the kelp.

    Around the corner, larger waves cranked in along Otter Cove, booming like cannons and laying down wide fans of foam. Far out past the break, a wheeling claque of gulls dive-bombed some distant food source, but no birds challenged the surf. The cormorants that normally pepper the bay clustered atop tall crags, safe from the reach of the waves.

    Because north swells “wrap” into this end of Monterey Bay, the waves along Otter Point seem to rumble in like bowling balls hooking down the lane. From any bench along the walking trail, you can watch swells rise in the hazy distance, advance in ranks toward shore, then pivot around each point like soldiers on parade.

    Bigger, more dramatic surf will arrive later in the year, but Monday’s swell did the standard prep work expected of the season opener. It sharpened long-dormant surfing reflexes, combed out six months of kelp snarls, scoured six months of guano off the bird rocks, and churned up six months of bacteria-rich sediments.

    The first swell is not generally very pretty, and Monday’s was no exception. The water was as brown as a root beer float, and rafts of clotted foam blanketed the bay like mattresses from a container sale. As surging waves mauled the kelp beds, torn vines, stems, roots and bulbs formed sluggish Persian carpets in the shallows.

    In addition to its cleaning duties, the first swell also teaches basic wave mechanics to a kindergarten of clueless coastal creatures born during the off season. At “Fronts” on Monday, I watched an adult California gull snatch from the top of the break wall a surf-hammered black crab that had fled the waves too slowly.

    As the gull strode proudly along the wall bearing the broken crab in its beak, a mottled brown baby gull padded quickly after it, insistently peeping like a delivery truck backing up. I could almost translate the peeps:

    “What is that Mom? I’m hungry. I want it!”

    The older gull had a beak full, but her stern gaze seemed to say: “Pay attention and learn, grasshopper. When big surf booms in, this break wall becomes a seafood smorgasbord. You can catch your own crustaceans!”

    “What? I’m hungry! I want it!”

    “All right. Here, have a leg.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on September 28, 2012

    Topics: Otter Views

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