Monterey, California:
Exulting in Nature and History

by Hans Tammemagi

My landlubber heart began beating faster as a large, black shape swam toward my flimsy kayak, rising gracefully and effortlessly in and out of the deep blue water. “It’s a sea lion,” said our guide nonchalantly. “They can weigh up to 1500 pounds.”


Her reassurance that these enormous beasts are generally harmless did little to slow my thumping heart. As the glistening smooth mass passed within a few yards, what looked so blubbery and uncoordinated on shore now appeared as pure fluid poetry, a stark contrast to my clumsy paddling.

My wife and I were on a kayak tour while holidaying in Monterey. I had read that Monterey Bay, a large bite out of the sunny California coastline, is blessed with abundant sea life but I had never expected the phenomenal array of marine life we were to observe.

The initial surge of excitement from getting our kayaks through the shoreline surf, turned to a wonderful soothing contentment as we floated amongst kelp beds, gently rising and falling with the swell — it was like being next to the heartbeat of Mother Earth. The sky was a pale blue and our kayaks were bright patches of red and yellow bobbing on the deep aquamarine of the water. Near us, a few sea otters were sleeping in the warmth of the sun, fuzzy balls curled up in kelp so they wouldn’t drift away. Black cormorants flew past, their beaks laden with large pieces of kelp to line their nests. A small delicate phalarope flittered on the kelp, spending as much time walking as flying.

Although 75 per cent of the Earth is covered by water, it always astonishes me how alien the ocean is to us humans. In our kayaks especially, we were floating on a very thin layer of the immensity of the depths below. We did, however, have a good feel for what life forms lay below, as we had spent the previous day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, considered the best in North America, and perhaps in the entire world.

Opened in 1984 in an old sardine-canning factory on historic Cannery Row, the aquarium offers many fascinating exhibits of jelly fish, octopi, sharks, manta rays, and otters, all of which embody and illustrate the precious habitat of Monterey Bay, one of the richest marine environments on the globe. My favourite was the three-storey-high Kelp Forest gallery, that towered over us like a cathedral providing a window into the mysterious marine realm. Sunlight filtered through the water onto 30-foot, golden-yellow kelp that swayed sensuously back and forth. Cruising and thriving amongst the tall kelp was an enormous variety of life including leopard sharks, sardines, wolf-eels, rockfish, lingcod, sea urchins, starfish, abalone and much, much more.

Now here we were, in our kayaks floating on top of the great, teeming, exotic — and totally uncontained — marine world .

We paddled from the kelp beds toward the Coast Guard pier, a favourite sea lion hangout, where the air resounded with a raucous roar and barking. We were greeted by hundreds and hundreds of sea lions basking on the rocks, lying on buoys, and constantly jostling and arguing over the best spots. Many swam, perhaps out of curiosity, near our kayaks.

Frequently we passed a bizarre sight: a group of black flippers floating vertically in the water like a flotilla of small sails. Amongst them whiskered noses also protruded from the water. Below the surface more than a dozen sea lions were holding a floating sleep-in, our guide explained. The raised flippers act as solar panels bringing warmth to the submerged somnolent animals.

All too soon our time was up and we rode the surf into the sandy beach.

We continued to explore the stunning coast of this part of northern California. North of Monterey the shoreline is lined with vast sand dunes and the golden soft sand beaches are magnets for sunworshippers, surfers, birdwatchers and kite fliers. A hang-glider, its translucent red wings shimmering in the sunlight, skimmed over us, silent as a shadow.

We then pointed the car southward to Point Lobos State Park, the northernmost extent of the dramatic Big Sur coastline that lies south of Monterey. Here, outside the shelter of the bay, the coast is wild and untamed. At Sea Lion Point we watched waves roll in from the far reaches of the Pacific, as they have done for eternity, and fling themselves against the rocky headland. Every few moments a seething column of spray was tossed high in the air. At Whalers Cove, where in the late 1800s the waters ran red with the slaughter of thousands of whales, about 40 harbour seals and pups lay peacefully on a small beach like driftwood cast up by a storm.

Next day, following the yellow markers of the self-guided Path of History, we learned about Monterey’s long and intriguing past. The city served as the capital of California under Spanish rule in the late 1700s and also under Mexican rule from 1822 to 1846. We passed lovingly restored Spanish-era buildings with orange tile roofs and brilliant red roses and rhododendrons leaning against adobe walls. In the Royal Presidio Chapel, now known as San Carlos Cathedral, which has been in continuous use since 1794, we gazed upward as sunshine filtered into the darkened cool nave.

Probably the most beautiful and serene place in the region, and one of the most popular sites of pilgrimage in the United States is the Carmel Mission, founded in 1770. Visited by Pope John Paul II in 1987, the mission is both a museum and functioning place of worship. The basilica and its surrounding halls and gardens are alive with history, and are also a photographer’s dream. Every scene, from the weathered wooden crosses surrounded by orange poppies in the small cemetery, to the massive hand-carved door, to the cross high over the adobe bell tower, is achingly beautiful.

Our departure from Monterey was bitter sweet. We had learned so much and exulted in the experience. But much was left undone: we had not sampled the fine wineries, or watched for whales, or visited the Steinbeck Museum, or hit a ball on a world-class golf course, or driven the famous Seventeen Mile Tour. Perhaps next time.

For more information on the Monterey Bay area, read Hans's article Mighty Moss: A Smokescreen over a Gem of a Town

© Photographs copyright of Hans Tammemagi



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