Thursday, July 10, 2008
A finned torpedo swoops straight at the land mammal’s facemask, ducking away at the last moment. The diveby, which comes near enough that the whites of the lion’s eyes flash brilliantly against the deep greens of the sea, is one of a number of approaches that lose little of their suddenness during a 45-minute snorkeling excursion along the Coast Guard Pier’s breakwater in Monterey– here, amongst the peacefully swaying stands of kelp, drifting moon jellies and the occasional colorful rock fish, the playful sea lions are the ever-curious action stars. At one point, a small sea lion suddenly pops up from below, seemingly within whisker range, to exchange an eye-to-eye introduction with me before wheeling away a blink later. Larger, older sea lions keep a little more distance between us, cruising by in straight lines, watching.
The pier’s breakwater area, easily accessed from San Carlos Beach in Monterey, is a very popular diving spot for beginners thanks to its gradual descent, sandy bottom and bay-protected calm. While snorkelers won’t see the two acres of Metridium fields living at 60 feet of depth (and looking like a cauliflower farm), snorkeling requires much less training, equipment and expense.
San Carlos-adjacent Monterey Bay Dive Company is among the many local scuba houses that rent snorkel gear (see box, this page); a brief perusal of local networking sites quickly turns up used snorkel sets (scuba fins, mask, snorkel, booties) for less than the cost of two days’ rental.
Dive shops also come in handy when evaluating conditions. Visibility is best in the winter, but a call over to one of the universally friendly local shops will help reveal what kind of conditions to expect. MBDC co-owner Sandra Fields, who says she feels Lovers Point beats Coast Guard breakwater because of its rock formations, also had a counterintuitive tip to share: “Cloudy days are actually better,” she says. “With a lot of sun, algae blooms green the water and hurt vis’.”
Up the coast, slender columns of glowing golden light angle through the shallows, disappearing behind dancing strands of different species of seaweed. The dominant giant kelp’s big broad blades frame tall windows of water that invite snorkelers to plunge down and through their gates.
Beneath the swells that slosh the rocky coastline between Lovers Point Beach and the outcropping of shapely stones at the north of the Pacific Grove park, a range of other aquatic plants captivate with their own textures and movements: rough, purplish Turkish towel, pale green sea lettuce, long and whip-like eel grass.
Beneath them, shiny piles of mussel shells wink from small patches of sand in the filtered afternoon sun; every so often a big abalone shell adds its own opulence to the underwater aesthetic.
Seals and big-ticket fish don’t appear (though they often do around these rocks), but a school of perch wiggles by and sea stars splash color against the canvas of sand and seaweed.
Like San Carlos, the best part about Lovers might be how easily its underwater playground is accessed– though the quantities of kelp and seaweed that beguile athletes each fall during the Sea Otter Triathlon require some ducking and dodging to get farther out.
On a recent Wednesday, the water was even warm enough to slip in sans wetsuit for 20 minutes, though the resultant shivers made it hard to recommend that course of action to others. The heat wave starting to grip the Central Coast as of press time, though, certainly makes longer missions (with a wetsuit) more pleasant temperature-wise than normal. For those without a suit, each local shop does package deals that include insulation, including Adventures by the Sea, whose snorkeling set-up sits right there at Lovers.