Folks venturing out on the 850-foot-long San Simeon Pier — which juts dramatically into the San Simeon Cove — are in the catbird seat: They peer over the edge to observe sea otters, bird life, harbor seals, kayaks riding the swells and the occasional dolphin or whale.
The cove is clearly one of the must-visit destinations for visitors and locals who explore the North Coast. Indeed, in the summer of 2015, multitudes of people — visiting from all over the planet — were drawn to the cove to witness the feeding frenzies of humpback whales. Up to six of the behemoths at a time entered the cove.
Much to the joy of spectators, the whales exploded out of the water right next to the pier. Their enormous mouths slammed shut on “bait balls” of anchovies and sardines. I was on the pier to watch humpbacks 40 consecutive days. Meanwhile, every time I have walked the pier — with fishermen wetting lines on either side of the 12-foot wide platform, hoping to snag a surf perch, jack smelt or bocaccio — I have wondered what it would be like to explore the cove in a kayak, rarely believing I might get up the nerve to actually do it.
On the morning of June 18, I was more than a little spooked about paddling a small vessel out into deep water, but I gathered up the courage. I have been on six or seven canoe trips, paddling deep into the Canadian wilderness on lakes carved by glaciers — in the Quetico Provincial Park north of Minnesota. But launching a kayak into the ocean is a wildly different ball game.
Our guide was the noted conservation activist — and animal adoption advocate — Cubby Cashen, the proprietor of the cove’s kayak rental business, “Sea For Yourself.” He launched our kayaks into the crashing waves with great cheer and gusto. And once I got out on the water, and accepted my paddle as my new best friend, I was fine.
The wind and the rhythmic rise and fall of 1- to 4-foot swells was a little unnerving at first. But a few deep breaths later, I was almost relaxed. We headed to the north portion (the “wall”) of the cove where Cashen identified the resident birds zooming to and from their nests — Western Gulls, Pigeon Guillemots and Double Crested Cormorants.
From there, Cashen’s tour took us through very thick kelp beds to deeper water. Perched on the kelp bed, a respectful distance from us, was a sea otter pup, watching us watch it. Cashen also pointed to the mother (who recently gave birth) and described the sometime shaky dynamics between mother and infant; pups do not always receive enough nourishment to survive.
Cashen, who has owned his kayak business for eight years, was doing more than leading a kayak tour. He was as sharp and knowledgeable as a marine biology instructor. While we were stopped dead still in the kelp, he found an ISOPOD (member of the shrimp and lobster family) and a few turban snails, lurking in the slimy seaweed.
Next, after pointing to a dead feather duster (sea worm) he had spied, our leader asked us if we were up for paddling out into still, deeper water. The two women (mom and daughter) on this tour with me apparently said okay; I was the straggler all morning, and wasn’t close enough to hear everything being said.
Moments after we began paddling for deeper water, beyond the cove’s “point,” Cashen said, “Here comes a big one.”
He wasn’t kidding. I paddled hard away from the wave, as instructed. Shortly, that 10 footer lifted my kayak up, way up, and then let me down roller-coaster-style, into a trough.
There wasn’t time for worry or fright. It arrived and hurtled shoreward in a few seconds.
Frankly, it was the thrill of the day.
The awe-inspiring power of the natural world had just given us a moment to remember. Add to that the grandeur of giant eucalyptus trees, the caves and bird nests on the sheer north wall, the thunder as waves crash onto the long sandy beach — all are components of the cove’s enchantment.
No doubt, Mother Nature is the cove’s main driver. But it’s fair to say that Cashen rides shotgun.