Day 6: Whale of a finish

Editor’s note: On July 29, Tribune reporter Brian Milne, photographer Joe Johnston and Kayak Horizons guide Beau Clyburn set off on a six-day, 98-mile kayak trip down the coast of San Luis Obispo County. Here is Milne’s diary of the sixth and final day, from Port San Luis to the Guadalupe Dunes:

Sunrise was still nearly an hour away when the three of us began lugging our kayaks to the dimly lit dock behind Port Side Marine.

We were greeted at the launch area by an old sailor who looked as if he had just walked off the set of the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel. The crinkly faced man took a brief break from his early-morning routine of collecting aluminum cans and wished us well on the final leg of our trip.

“Good luck to the three of you,” he growled.

“Thanks, we’ll need it,” I responded. “We’ve got another 20 miles ahead of us.”

“Well, watch out for Whitey,” he said with a snarl. “I hate that (expletive) fish.”

The three of us chuckled uncomfortably as we pushed off from the dock and began our predawn paddle toward Avila Pier, near where a great white shark attacked and killed a swimmer four years earlier.

We had managed to go five days and 76 miles without a mention of the “S” word, but that unspoken rule was broken in a hurry on the final day.

“You know there are only two things we haven’t seen on this trip,” I said, hoping I wasn’t the only one spooked by Bootstrap Bill’s bon-voyage wish.

“A shark or a whale.” Little did I know we’d be surrounded by dorsal fins just a few hours later.

A quick crossing

It was light enough to ditch our headlamps by the time we passed the pier, continuing our spine-chilling sunrise paddle to Shell Beach where we planned to explore the Dinosaur Caves.

Thanks to the glassy conditions, and the great white hype at the dock, we made a speedy paddle across San Luis Obispo Bay and didn’t stop until we reached Bird Rock.

We spent nearly 45 minutes wandering through Shell Beach’s labyrinth of guano-topped rocks, where endangered brown pelicans, happy faced harbor seals and an assortment of seabirds hung out. The low tide allowed us to land at a sandy-bottom cavern where we stretched our legs for a bit before heading out to sea again.

We were almost a mile off the coast when we noticed the spectacular display of diving birds and leaping sea lions to the west.

Studying the feeding frenzy as we paddled along, we noticed an occasional spout fading into the horizon. The three of us figured the spray was just a hungry pod of porpoises looking to snack on a school of baitfish.

The porpoise hypothesis quickly unraveled when a majestic black tail flipped out of the water about 11/2 miles west of the Pismo Pier. The tail dangled above the surface for a split second and by the time it slid back into the turquoise depths, the three of us were paddling full-bore toward the swirling ball of sea life.

Within minutes we found ourselves alongside more than a dozen of the largest mammals we had ever seen.

“There’s our whale,” I yelled in a childlike tone. “Make that our whales.”

The three of us sat paralyzed in our now diminutive kayaks as the gentle giants gorged themselves on baitfish.

We figured we were watching humpback whales because of the way they arched their backs as they lumbered along. When one of the larger whales — easily twice the length of my 15-foot kayak— lunged from the surface with a mouthful of fish, the white pleats along its otherwise black body confirmed we were hanging with humpbacks.

It was as if we were in the middle of a Discovery Channel documentary on whales, only we could actually feel their power resonate through the water and smell the stench of rotting fish with every spout.

“What a surreal experience,” Beau said. “Being out there with such huge animals like that is something very few people will ever see. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

I could have watched the dorsal fins and tail flukes for hours, but we still had nine miles ahead of us and the afternoon winds were starting to pick up.

As we pulled away from the blubbery behemoths I couldn’t help but peek over my shoulder after every couple of paddles, expecting to see a waving tail as we made our way to the Guadalupe Dunes.

Heading home

We were less than eight miles from our destination when the calming sounds of the ocean were interrupted by the clatter of ATVers roaring about the Oceano Dunes state park and cars speeding along nearby Highway 101.

The not-so-sweet sounds of daily life got me thinking about how often in our busy routine we zoom right by this incredible stretch of coastline. Rarely do we slow down and truly experience everything the sea and its furry, finned and feathered friends have to offer.

That’s what this trip was all about — enjoying our county’s coast at an average speed of 2.5 mph.

Along the way we met some wonderful people, saw some breathtaking sights and paddled alongside some remarkable wildlife — including an enormous flock of sooty shearwater that circled us during the final few miles and helped carry us to our long-awaited landing at the Guadalupe Dunes.

Part of me couldn’t believe we made it. Another part wanted to keep paddling to Point Sal.

I think that’s why the three of us were so subdued when we finally reached the beach. Instead of doing cartwheels or making sand angels in the dunes, we concluded the trip the same way we ended each of the previous five legs.

We hopped out of our kayaks — or in my case, picked myself up after getting bowled over by another crooked wave — and dragged our boats to the high-tide line where we collapsed on the sand in succession.

Joe, Beau and I had been humbled by and had too much respect for Big Blue to go celebrating wildly on the beach.

On the inside we were overjoyed. On the outside, we looked and felt like a trio of castaways who had been lost at sea for a week.

That was just it. For six days this summer the three of us had escaped to the ocean, leaving the rigors of everyday life to experience the beauty, wildness and solitude of nearly 100 miles of our county’s precious coastline.

“What an experience,” Joe said. “We started off with some butt-kicking paddles and had some rough landings along the way, so it was nice to have a day that included a beautiful dawn paddle, the sea caves in Shell Beach, and then all the whales we saw along the way.

“It was pretty much the perfect ending to an amazing trip.”

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