Monday, November 2, 2009

Even novices can paddle on Monterey Bay

MONTEREY – For about the price of a meal at a fancy restaurant on Cannery Row, even a novice kayaker can spend a memorable day on Monterey Bay with seals, sea otters, and underwater forests of kelp. A solo outing early last spring instantly qualified the bay for my “A” list.

But what about off-season? “Fall and winter months bring us some of our best weather – clear and mild -- and it’s less crowded,” said Holokai Brown of Monterey Bay Kayaks, a longtime local outfitter.

That forecast pretty much described a Sunday late in October. Most fog burned away by mid-morning, leaving a wisp of gray across the distant Santa Cruz Mountains. Our group of Sacramento kayakers paddled out of the harbor and around breakwater rocks piled high with sea lions barking even louder than the hawkers on Cannery Row.

We turned into the open bay and a breathtaking expanse of sparkling, blue-green waters accented by gently rolling swells. The smell – well, that was something else. While it’s certainly not the odor that symbolized the sardine canning era, a whiff of “eau de harbor” is unmistakable when breezes are light and seas relatively calm. Fortunately, bay sights and sounds offer quick distraction.

Keeping a safe 75 to 100 yards from the rocky shoreline, our kayaks eased into the kelp islands that dampen waves and foster a unique marine environment. Three-foot-tall egrets tip-toed over the watery thickets on the lookout for unwary fish, while seals and sea otters played hide and seek, popping up here and there and all around us. It's an amazing contrast to the swank hotels and tacky tourist shops that crowd the shoreline. Any first-time paddler here immediately feels a strong sense of gratitude for the opportunity to experience Monterey Bay on the natural.

Our group included a dozen experienced ‘yakers led by veteran guides, and we paddled seaworthy craft. But it’s easy to tour the bay without extensive preparation, expense, or gear. Monterey Bay Kayaks puts “a couple of thousand” novice paddlers on the water annually, estimates Brown, an instructor and guide here for about five years. “On a summer weekend, we may launch over 100 kayakers a day.”

Many have little or no paddling experience, but as long as they are reasonably good swimmers, they should be able to handle the bay, according to Brown. Monterey Bay Kayaks provides novices with flotation jackets, wetsuits – bay waters are cold year-round -- and sit-on-top kayaks that are easy to enter and exit, difficult to flip, and self-draining. “Capsizing is a rarity,” said Brown.

Still, the emphasis is on safety. Kayak renters must go through an orientation and sign liability releases before they launch from the municipal beach a short walk from the outfitter’s back door. The pre-launch session includes a lesson in paddling techniques, a review of current weather and wave conditions, and an area map. (Rental kayaks may not be paddled beyond the aquarium, about 1.5 miles from the Monterey Bay Kayaks shop.)

Kayakers also are briefed on Monterey Bay’s status as a national marine sanctuary. Under federal law, it’s illegal to change or alter the behavior of marine mammals in any way. Brown said that translates into keeping a distance of 50 to 100 feet, but he prefers a low-key approach. “We just remind people that they’re the visitors, and for these animals the bay is home.”

Keeping a proper distance can be difficult, however, when seals or sea otters are in a playful mood or have otherwise become used to humans. Several seals splashed around our group, and on a previous outing nearby, one young seal kept trying to clamber aboard our sterns. “People think that’s really cute until they realize they’ve got 50 pounds of fur and claws on top of the boat with them,” said Brown. “Most of the time, the animals are more indifferent to paddlers…but you need to keep that separation, and if necessary, keep calmly backing away.”

Some of the best wildlife viewing may be found within the calm confines of the harbor, where mega-buck yachts and rusty old scows are moored together. Huge sea lions stake out larger mooring buoys while others stretch out and snooze underneath piers and decks. It’s the perfect opportunity for leisurely paddling and photography.

Yet another bonus: Just a few minutes’ drive away is Elkhorn Slough, also one of my “top ten" kayaking destinations in Northern California. ("The sweetest slough beckons you") Put these two spots together and you’ve got the perfect paddling weekend.


Monterey Bay Kayaks, at the base of the Monterey commercial fishing wharf, is at the intersection of Del Monte Avenue and Figueroa Street. Kayak rentals begin at about $30 for a sit-on-top such as an Ocean 13. For about $40, a more experienced kayaker may select from several sit-inside models. Rentals are good for a full day and include wet suits, life vests, paddles and instruction. The company’s Web site is very helpful and comprehensive – it also covers Elkhorn Slough, and the shop has a second outlet there as well.

Paddlers who bring their own kayaks can launch from the municipal beach behind the kayak shop, or launch from the Coast Guard jetty. (From Monterey Bay Kayaks, continue on Del Monte Avenue toward downtown; go through the tunnel, bear to the right on Foam Street and then take the first right into the public parking lot and boat launch at the Coast Guard pier.)

At either launch spot, expect to pay up to $10 for public parking, more if you bring a boat trailer.

For other Monterey attractions -- such as motels and restaurants -- check out this blog by my pal James Raia, who knows the area very well.

© Glenn Brank 2009