Whale of a day
Perfect outing, from sea lions to whales to dolphins
My kayaker husband Jeff and I heard some exciting news: The whales were feeding closer than usual to the shore in Santa Cruz, making it a good time to see them in their natural habitat.
We had Wednesday off work so we packed up the kayak and headed for the coast. With our first glimpse of the clear waters beneath the blue sky we knew we were in for a memorable day. The temperature was 72 degrees, but it felt like every bit of a warm summer day -- in November.
We parked near the harbor and hoisted our orange kayak into water, donned sunscreen and hats, and paddled out to sea. We passed other kayakers coming back and asked if they had seen any whales. They all said "no," but they had seen dolphins and sea lions.
Our kayak formed lines in the gentle waves that reminded me of the lines carved in sand dunes in the dessert, but these dunes were bluish grey and fluid, moving in ebbs and flows. I looked back at the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, not even a mile away, sparkling in the sunlight, which is usually the main attraction. But today folks were there for the whales, and anyone with a boat, kayak, longboard or surfboard was heading out across the water in hopes of seeing one up close and personal.
Laws dictate that you stay 100 feet away from the whales. The problem is, there is no law on how close a whale can get to you. Nonetheless we paddled on, listening to the squawk of seagulls with 4-foot wingspans as they soared over the water looking for their next meal.
Up to this point, the only swimming creatures we saw were the sea lions, which were diving and popping up to see us. We decided they were a better bet than the whales so we paddled over to the pier to get a better look. Some were barking and attempting to jump onto the beams while others were lazily dozing in the warmth of the afternoon sun. But the tide had gone out, making the pier beams slightly out of reach. Still, they heaved their massive bodies out of the water only to smack their necks against the beam and go crashing back to the water. The slumbering sea lions already on the beams just lifted their sleepy heads before slumping back into their warm beds.
After a nerve-wracking paddle under the pier -- which I did rapidly in response to the barking sea lions -- we emerged on the other side. We once again headed out to sea to try and catch a glimpse of the main feature of the day, the whales. My husband was paddling, I was lying back with legs stretched out and face in the sun hoping to coax a little color into my pale skin when -- what was that? That dark mass surging out of the water? My husband reacted faster than I did by paddling quickly toward it. I sat up and also began paddling -- we were heading toward a whale.
The whale submerged into the water and let out a spray of water. We paddled faster toward it, another kayaker also in pursuit. Here it came again, heaving itself out of the water. We could see its hump back, which was enough to thrill us. Again we tried to anticipate where it was going and paddled closer, but where was it? It had submerged into the water again and we didn't know where it would reappear.
Suddenly it occurred to me that it could reappear right where we were sitting. The air around us was still, we were holding our breath. I imagined it rising underneath us -- this would be a strange way to die. But then we saw the majestic creature reappear a safe distance away from us, heading out to sea.
Friends from Pleasanton, Katie and Jathan MacKenzie, were meeting us in Santa Cruz and they called. So, still at sea, I told them where we would meet them on the beach and we headed back to the harbor. Jathan took over my seat aboard the mighty kayak to go back out to sea with Jeff. I joined Katie on the beach where she had set out chairs and we basked in the warm glow of the fading November sunset. What could end this perfect California day? Oh, look! Katie spotted a pod of dolphins playing in the surf, jumping and diving in perfect unison. Our husbands in the kayak also spotted them and were soon dancing among them.
--Katrina and Jeff Stocker are former residents of Pleasanton who now live in Tracy.