Summertime on the Central Coast is short on competitive sports, but for those who enjoy getting out of the house and away from television, the Web and those addicting, violent (and sometimes misogynistic) video games — you know who you are — there is a veritable overabundance of recreational opportunities available.
Here in Cambria and on the Central Coast, recreational opportunities know no season. To wit, summer recreation can take the form of hiking, bicycling, running, tennis, tossing flying discs, exploring tide pools, flying kites, walking/jogging on the beach, fishing from piers, kite boarding, surfing, swimming at Shamel Park, kayaking, horseback riding and lawn bowling. What have I left off of this list? Oh, let’s not forget pitching horseshoes and skipping flat stones in shallow waters.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “recreation” as: a) what people do to have fun or to relax; b) activities conducted for pure enjoyment; and c) a means of refreshment or diversion.
I define recreation as getting out of the house and into nature’s refreshing, calming ambiance, or walking the beach at low tide or on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, or just hanging out in my camp chair near that enormous body of restless water we live next to.
I had completed my work late Tuesday afternoon, July 7, and as the fog slipped in over Strawberry Canyon, blotting out the sun, I was preparing to set out for an early evening walk. My landlord was just arriving home and he waved me down.
“The humpbacks are back at the Cove,” he said. “It’s not as wild a scene as it was last Labor Day weekend, but they’re out there, and I know you love whales.”
When I learn that whales are in close to shore, I’m drawn like steel shavings to an electronic magnet. Ever since I moved here from America’s Dairyland — I lived 65 miles from Lake Michigan — I have cherished the thundering collision as the Pacific Ocean meets the shore.
So, given that whales were doing some serious feasting on anchovies in the Cove, I broke the speed limit and headed north on Highway 1 early Wednesday morning. I was proud to be the first and only person on the San Simeon pier at 6:30 a.m.
I hustled to the far end of the pier and scanned the horizon and the waters to the left and to the right of the pier. Quite a few birds were in the air (pelicans, gulls and more) and cormorants were in abundance as they dived, got mouthfuls of anchovies and resurfaced.
Within a couple of minutes I heard that familiar whooshing sound of a whale blowing — from lungs the size of a Mini Cooper — off to my left. There it was, slipping back under the surface 80 yards or so away. Soon another humpback appeared about 100 yards away, then another, then still another. In all I had five whales all to myself, a rare treat for a natural world enthusiast.
I held court on that long pier with not another human for 25 minutes, until a young woman from Minnesota strolled out to my spot and asked what bird species were diving. I pointed instead to a humpback, by this time surfacing on the left side of the pier.
I explained to the cheerfully surprised visitor that the bait balls the whales were gorging themselves on are schools of hundreds of thousands of anchovies (maybe millions); the tiny anchovies swarm together as a defense mechanism when they feel threatened by predators.
In this case, the predators are humpbacks, and ironically the bait ball defensive measure plays right into the huge mouths of whales. In fact, about an hour into this extraordinary morning, I witnessed a fascinating “bubble net” feeding strategy.
I knew a whale was nearby, so I zeroed in on the surface with my camera. Shortly, about 25 feet directly below my spot on the north side of the pier, a boiling mass of bubbles exploded to the surface.
This phenomenon occurs when the whale spots a dense bait ball, dives deep before propelling itself rapidly upward in a spiraling motion, releasing swirling clouds of bubbles from its blow holes as it hurtles toward the surface.
The bubbles form a kind of cage, actually trapping the anchovies. And with those enormous jaws wide open, the humpback lunges out of the water before closing its massive mouth, expelling the water through its baleen plates and swallowing volumes of anchovies.
I had my camera focused on the bubbles, but unfortunately, as the behemoth’s gaping mouth exploded out of the water directly in front of me, I pressed so hard on the shutter that no picture was taken. All I got was this annoying whirring sound. Ouch.
By 8 a.m., there were still four whales working the cove and a gaggle of maybe 12 or 15 people peering excitedly over the pier’s edge. It occurred to me that if more people knew these incredible mammals were doing some serious snacking in the Cove, there would be 200 thrilled people on hand.
Maybe one of those reverse 911 phone systems would work. If your family loves whales, hey, please sign up. Announcements could be quickly sent to hundreds of Cambria phones.
Short of that, I’ll volunteer to drive through neighborhoods in a loudspeaker van like sheriffs use when ordering neighborhoods to evacuate.
I can hear it now, blasting away on Happy Hill, echoing through the pines in the Leimert neighborhood, rousting folks on Marine Terrace and booming the whale message along Burton drive in the East Village: “Hey! We Got Whales! The Cove! Happening Now!”
On my way back to Cambria, I saw a large gathering of zebras on the Hearst property and pulled over to take a closer look. I counted 45 zebras, more than I’d ever seen in herd before. Soon, several minivans of schoolchildren from Morro Bay pulled over.
They had visited the elephant seal rookery, a worthy recreational outing. But imagine the wide-eyed expressions of elation and enchantment had they been alerted to Mother Nature’s magical production churning the waters of the Cove.
Maybe we need to use that loudspeaker van in Morro Bay as well.