Never travel with someone who has the bladder of a chipmunk.
During the months of December through March, gray whales pass through San Diego’s shores of the Pacific from the frigid waters of the Arctic, en route to the warm lagoons of Baja California where they birth their young.
The longest migration by any mammal on earth is undertaken by one of the world’s largest.
Incredible – isn’t it?
While in San Diego, I made it a priority to sign up for a whale-watching excursion on a “R.I.B.” I had no idea of what that acronym stood for, so of course I created a barbeque party-boat fantasy in my mind.
It turned out the boat was even smaller than I’d pictured, with a mere six slabs of narrow seats, a very low profile, and a large, open bow. And inflatable. Apparently, R.I.B. stands for rigid inflatable boat. (So much for that barbecue.)
Inflatable? Rigid? Basically, we were about to embark on a three-hour journey with innumerable sea creatures of up to 80,000 pounds each lurking beneath us – ready to breach at any moment – whilst speeding on the open sea at 35 knots (about 45 MPH) in what looked somewhat similar to an oversized pool float with a motor.
Are there cup-holders, too?
Our easygoing captain, Clint, handed all six passengers “flotation” suits. The teenaged girl in our group suspiciously inquired how a garment so heavy could be used as a flotation device.
After awkwardly wriggling into our suits, and gaining about twenty pounds each, we hopped in, sat on our hard, narrow slabs, and began to putter through the San Diego Bay while Clint began his narrative about the sites and creatures surronding us. He informed us we were on an ex-Navy SEAL deployment boat.
Groups of seals and sea lions barked and arfed as they sometimes played, but mostly napped on surrounding buoys and piers. We picked up speed and enjoyed a panoramic view of the city skyline and the graceful curve of the 2.12 mile long San Diego-Coronado Bridge.
When Clint slowed the boat down, we were allowed to move about. My butt was sufficiently numb, so I got up, and ended up tripping on my oversized gear, nearly testing out my “survival suit” in the process. Impressively, I made it safely to the bow and discovered a cooler. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a microbrew with my name on it, but I did find a comfy looking beanbag on top. No one wanted to sit there when I inquired, so I gratefully lounged out. It turned out to be the best seat on the boat; I gleefully went airborne a few times when we reached full speed.
Clint instructed us to look for spouting whales and to yell out “spout” if we saw one, and then it was full speed ahead.
Shortly after my bony backside regained consciousness, frisky pods of dolphins began to appear. It was apparent they were of the “common” variety, because they were everywhere. Dolphins leapt in and out of the water right beside our boat. Farther off, little splashes and distant ripples of water were evidence of more dolphins. Looking for a whale in this magical display was like playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?”
Our fantastic symphony with the dolphins was by far my favorite part of the ride. We synchronized our speed, as they gracefully performed while splashing us playfully with cool saltwater. The photos I snapped with my camera phone did the scene no justice. They were close enough to touch and looked so smooth I almost felt inclined to. I think one of them flirtatiously winked at me – his eye was that close.
At that point my iPhone nearly plummeted to the bottom of the ocean.
When Clint informed us the myriad of dolphins we saw accounted for only 10% of what surrounded us, I was completely mystified. I think I even giggled. Somewhat reluctantly, I sat back down on my bag of beans, as we got back up to speed to continue our quest for a gray whale.
The tone in our little boat changed completely after we bid farewell to our dolphin friends. Whale patrol was in full effect. Everyone fell silent and intently scanned the vast blue water. My fellow passengers’ faces were so focused that you would’ve thought we were searching for surviving passengers of the Titanic.
The cool ocean air whipped at my face. I unrelentingly scanned the water until I felt like a stalker, minus the binoculars and baseball cap. Finally, word of a gray whale sighting came through the radio and we zoomed off in that direction!
My excitement – luckily not the boat – deflated once we arrived. We found three gray whales in close vicinity, but, the boats, per regulation, weren’t allowed to get any closer than 100 yards to the magnificent creatures. I was rightfully annoyed. In the brochure, they looked mere feet away.
My intention had been to get close enough to risk a fluke to the face.
Regardless of that disappointment, it was an unforgettable ride. I’m glad I chose the R.I.B. over the more conventional ship experience. A bit of advice – bring binoculars (and a decent camera).
While in San Diego, I stayed at the Loews Resort on Coronado Island. For those who travel with their furry friends, this hotel is very pet friendly. So much in fact, that they offer five different meal options in case your pooch decides to paw at the room service button. The “Bow Wow Tenderloin of Beef” almost had me licking my chops, so I’m sure it will please Fido.
I enjoyed a pleasant 74-degree day on a private Naval beach, which I shared with two well-built, football-tossing lifeguards. I made sure to steer clear of the “live firing area” as the sign instructed, even though the rebel inside me is usually inclined to break those kind of rules.
I visited the lively Gaslamp district, historic Old Town, and downtown Coronado Island. All of those typical tourist spots were fine and dandy, but I usually prefer the Ponce de Leon approach when traveling – I love to explore.
My friend invited me on a dinner ship tour of the bay, where we picked away at overcooked prime rib while being “entertained” by one of the most obnoxious DJs I’ve ever heard, accompanied by a tiny dance floor of people who appeared to have been thrown into a large closet and hypnotized with elevator music prior to boarding. I would’ve jumped ship if the water had been warm enough.
With that exception, I enjoyed many delicious meals in San Diego. Surprisingly, my favorite dining experience was at a chain restaurant. The Fish Market was mobbed with people (on a Tuesday night), but the outdoor seating was surprisingly peaceful and provided a beautiful view of the twinkling lights reflecting on the bay. My dish was fresh, delicious, and cost a mere $13.
There’s no excuse for not experiencing a sunset at La Jolla Cove while in San Diego. I don’t care if you have a strong aversion to unappealing odors – shove some cotton up each nostril and buck up. I’m convinced the possible discomfort and embarrassment will be worth it.
The first thing I noticed as I stood over the cove was the loud barking, followed by the unmistakable stench of hundreds of sea lions, which I soon located in an amorphous pile upon a blackened rocky ledge. Then, the people – a diverse drove of faces that seemed to sparkle like the reflection of the sun on the ocean waves. There wasn’t a frown in sight, and if there was, I wouldn’t have noticed.
I stood by myself while I watched the sun melt into the Pacific that evening, but I shared an unspoken calm and transcendence with perfect strangers; it was a reminder of the unadulterated magic of nature.
I was awestruck – especially when I got back to my rental, which was parked in a “loading only” zone, and it hadn’t been towed.
San Diego is truly amazing.