Monteray Bay National Marine Sanctuary (Calif.)

Sea Lions and Otters and Whales oh my! Jul-Aug 2018

Santa Cruz was one of the first places we explored upon settling down in San Mateo County. Why? Well, it’s surrounded by redwood forests, it has a magnificent wharf, it’s the birthplace of Santa Cruz Skateboards (the screaming hand logo is awesome), and it has an amazing outdoors scene.

Santa Cruz Harbor is on the Monteray Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which is part of the migratory route of many whale species, and the site of massive kelp forests that are home to sea otters, seals and sea lions. We went there to kayak almost every weekend in July and August.

South Harbor Launch Ramp charged $8/day for parking in 2018 (according to their website, the fees change so regularly that it’s not worth listing them), but did not charge a launch fee for kayaks. Although the parking lot is large and we always managed to find a spot, it did get packed on days when the weather was perfect.

Harbor staff were very friendly and very helpful, which is amazing given the demands of their job: they’re under the hot sun, directing parking, and coordinating the movement of boats – big and small, commercial and personal, from water taxis to tugboats – and even liaising with ambulances.

One day a murmur moved through the crowd of pedestrians threading their way along the South Harbor sidewalk to restaurants, bathrooms and the beach, that a boater had burned his hand at sea while maintaining his engine. As we inflated our kayak with a yellow hand pump, I heard snippets of conversation over harbor staff walkie-talkies that seemed to confirm the rumor. Sure enough, an ambulance pulled up and, just as we were about to launch, a tugboat pulled into view. As we pushed off of the pier and paddled away, harbor and ambulance staff, who had been saving their energy and keeping cool under whatever shade they could find, jumped into action.

Our first paddle in Monteray Bay was absolutely amazing. The water was still as oil (“comme l’huile” they say in France), and there was so much to see: pelicans and cormorants diving into the water, people old and young fishing along the harbor walls leading to Walton Lighthouse,

surfers queuing up and catching waves in Steamer Lane,

otters frolicking in the kelp forests,

seals making a ruckus inside the labyrinth of beams that hold up Santa Cruz Wharf, onlookers on the Wharf craning their bodies over railings to see what the ruckus was all about,

dolphins playing the way only dolphins can (sorry, no photos), birds having a good gossip over their morning tea,

sleepy sea lions reclining on Seal Rock,

flocks of common murre floating peacefully, boaters sailing slowly out to sea, and here and there clusters of colorful rental kayaks that seemed to extend the colors of the canvas created by Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Amusement Park out onto the water.

One time we saw a blue whale. Heading out to the bay, I caught what sounded like the word “whale” over a megaphone as we moved over to let an O’Neill Charter Yacht pass us. Intrigued, we decided to paddle in the direction of the yacht. Only moments later, we saw a huge plume of water shoot out of the bay about 200 feet away, followed by the sudden appearance of a gigantic tail! The megaphone informed us that it was a blue whale. Every minute or so huge plumes shot out of the water as the giant, watery shadow of the whale moved northward.

On another occasion, a gang of seals (or “sea dogs” as Ollie likes to call them; the expression on his face when they disappear under the water is priceless) surrounded us. We were paddling slowly over the kelp, puzzling over what type of bird it was that was making a sound like “adam,” when we saw a herd of seals ahead of us. We followed the National Marine Sanctuaries guidelines for ocean etiquette and began back paddling away from them, only to discover another herd behind us. So we stopped paddling and waited for them to pass. But instead of passing us, they began to pop their heads up out of the water, one after another, and look at us. It became a game to try to predict where the next head would pop up. We weren’t too worried about Ollie, safely ensconced in my spouse’s lap. But I was worried that they’d decide to take a closer examination of the kayak. Luckily only one seal was interested enough to make a close perusal, swimming slowly along the surface of the water, two feet away. Then suddenly the heads stopped popping up out of the water and they were gone.

Perhaps the experience that got our adrenaline up the highest was the time we paddled out to the Santa Cruz lighted whistle buoy (“Mile Buoy”), a mile out to sea. We’d been enjoying the thrill of the rise and fall of gentle ocean swells, when we heard the plaintive sound of Mile Buoy’s whistle. It seemed so close that we decided to paddle out to it. For thirty minutes the swells seemed to get longer and steeper. It was very quiet. We could no longer hear the pelicans, cormorants or gulls, and with no boats around, the only noise was the steady pulse of Mile Buoy and the sound of our paddles stroking the water. It was an eerie sensation, being out there all alone in a kayak with sixty feet of frigid ocean water beneath us, our vision focused on Mile Buoy, raised high and lowered down by the swells, like us, but out of sync, and the horizon hidden by fog. Finally, when we were close enough to Mile Buoy to see sea lions lounging on its base, we turned around and returned to the bustle and safety of shore.

There’s another thing to recommend Santa Cruz: it’s microbreweries. Few things in life are as exquisite as a day of paddling Santa Cruz Harbor followed by beers at Humble Sea Brewing Co. or Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing.

Resources consulted:
“30 Years of the ‘Screaming Hand’ — An Icon of Santa Cruz Skate Culture,” NBC Bay Area
gpsnauticalcharts.com online chart viewer
Humble Sea Brewing Company
“Kelp Forests,” SIMoN: Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
“King of the Buoy – Sea Lion Fight in Santa Cruz” (YouTube)
“Lighted Whistle Buoy set to hold anchor,” by Yvonne Falk, Santa Cruz Waves
“Ocean Etiquette,” NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries
O’Neill Yacht Charters
Monteray Bay National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA
Monteray Bay Whale Watch, LLC
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
“Santa Cruz Breakwater (Walton), CA,” lighthousefriends.com
“Santa Cruz Harbor (South Harbor Launch Ramp),” California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways
Santa Cruz Harbor: Gateway to the Monteray Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
Santa Cruz Skateboards
“Santa Cruz Surf Spots,” SantaCruz.com
“Santa Cruz Wharf,” City of Santa Cruz
“Swell (Ocean)” (Wikipedia)
“The Ultimate Nor Cal Brewery Map,” San Francisco Chronicle
“Whistling Buoy,” Dictionary.com