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Kayaking Among the Friendly Denizens of Monterey Bay

April 12, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

MONTEREY, Calif. — The kayaking instructor's caveat was succint: "Don't get too close to the sea lions."

He went on to explain that these powerful water mammals are basically friendly, but could get excited if a kayak came too close to the rocky breakwater where they congregate.

Perhaps hoping to be tossed a bit of food, the sea lions might dive into the water and, if they landed on a kayak, their weight could capsize or crush it.

We were lined up on the sandy beach near Fisherman's Wharf for instruction and then a guided tour of Monterey Bay by kayak, an ancient way of exploring coastal waters that is cresting into new popularity.

For my wife, Elfriede, and me, all of Monterey Bay formed our landward horizon in the sunlight of that radiant afternoon. Closest to us was a new perspective on old Monterey, from the resort hotels framing the waterfront to Fisherman's Wharf, Cannery Row, the new Aquarium and the sculpted coves of Pacific Grove.

View From the Water

Across the bay to the north were Santa Cruz and Capitola, five hours away by kayak though scarcely an hour along the curve of the coastal highway.

Sitting so low in the water creates a view that is different even from that of a sightseeing cruise boat. Small white-tipped waves sparkling close to eye level add a mood of fantasy to the harbor. The honking serenade from sea lions under the piers, where they are accustomed to having tidbits tossed their way, rolled across the water toward us as if we were in an orchestra pit.

The instructor-guides of Monterey Bay Kayaks kept their kayaks between those of our small group and the sea lions that covered the huge rocks at the end of the breakwater.

"This is close enough!" they would call out as we rounded the breakwater into the open sea.

The sea lions shook their heads as if in disappointment. We had kept our cameras tucked in waterproof plastic under our parkas so that they wouldn't tempt our attention away from the guides who were leading us toward the kelp beds of the sea otters.

Decided to Return

But without exchanging a word, we had already decided to return on our own the next morning.

When we did, the Monterey Bay Kayaks staff remembered us and let us launch ourselves through the surf.

The sea lions seemed to have been waiting for us on the outer breakwater rocks, which are closed off to access from shore. We eased slowly toward them, as we have done toward the great white swans that swim protectively in front of Cliveden House on the Thames.

Elfriede tucked her paddle under the line that secures the bow cover of the kayak and got out her camera. I held the kayak virtually motionless for so long that the sea lions appeared to get bored. One white-tufted old giant stretched out on a rock to bask in the warm sunshine.

The sea lions, like the sea otters, are a protected species, and we did not want to disturb them by going any closer than the limit our guides had set.

Hams on the Sea

The sea lions seemed to be posing for Elfriede. Old graybeard heaved himself upright and showed his best profile. When we backed gently away, several slipped into the sea and swam around us, as if to wish us bon voyage.

The sea otters also seem to feel unafraid and at home in Monterey Bay. Later that morning, we paddled around a drifting cluster of kelp. A sea otter cradling what appeared to be her young lifted her head out of the kelp and opened one eye.

The peaceful morning of traveling across Monterey Bay by kayak reminded us of what environmentalist colleagues have taught us: We share a biological heritage with fellow air-breathing, warm-blooded mammals such as the seals and sea lions, sea otters, whales and other ocean creatures who also possess complex social instincts.

The sea otters and other mammals couldn't always feel safe in these coastal waters. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the otters were killed off for their fur pelts, which were more prized in high society than mink, sable or ermine.

California sea otters today number only about 1,500 and are on the federal list of endangered species. They live along 220 miles of Central California coast, primarily in the kelp of Monterey Bay.

Kayaking Visitors

Seals and sea lions are also protected. The Eskimos once used their skins to cover the frames of ocean kayaks. Sea lions of the present generation share Monterey Bay with fiberglass kayaks.

Monterey Bay Kayaks, like other companies along the Central California coast, offers classes and tours for every range of ability. We were part of a group on a two-hour introductory tour of the bay, including basic kayaking lessons. We learned how to put on life jackets, and then the waterproof apron that would seal the opening around our waists against seawater.

Next, we stepped into the kayak and adjusted our feet to the rudder controls inside the hull. They make steering through ocean waters much easier than with paddles alone.

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