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If you like SeaWorld San Diego and the San Diego Zoo, you're sure to enjoy getting up close and personal with some wild San Diego wildlife when you take a La Jolla sea kayak tour.
The starting point for this sea-faring safari is La Jolla Shores beach and the quaint shopping and dining street of Avenida De La Playa. Here you'll find a handful of specialized outfitters catering to surfers, divers, bicyclists and—of course—kayakers. While do-it-yourselfers can rent kayaks from these same establishments and head out on their own, opting for a guided tour offers the advantage of insider knowledge of where to go and what to look for. And, best of all, there's no extra charge for the comical commentary and entertaining anecdotes.
After signing in and being fitted for a helmet and life vest, we meet our guides and get a quick introduction about the mini adventure we're about to embark upon. A chalkboard above the registration desk ominously records the pairs of sunglasses lost for the season thus far. Before leaving the shop, one of the guides gives a final warning to those who are reluctant to part with their cameras, phones, wallets and other hydrophobic personal effects. Lockers have been provided and my fellow participants have changed into swimwear and stowed their valuables. It's a varied group to be sure: an elderly woman and her husband who is walking with a cane, a Scandinavian family with young children, a trio of college roommates, two honeymoon couples and me, the only fool insisting on bringing a camera.
At the beach, the kayaks are waiting for us and there's a bustle of activity as other tours go in and out, and surfers, standup paddleboarders and scuba divers enjoy the beach on a beautiful summertime Saturday. Our group assembles on the shoreline and mimics the guide as he instructs us on proper paddle stroke and gives us a safety briefing. The kayaks are sit-on-top style, where the paddler rides in an open cockpit—guaranteed to get wet, but also free to slip in and out of the boat as they please. Although the surf is small, we watch several members of a returning tour capsize in the surf. They come up laughing, collecting lost paddles and ball caps, as spouses and guides cheer them on.
With the help of our own guides, and their caring attention to the elderly man and woman, our group makes it out through the surf zone without incident. In no time, we're falling in line behind the guides and getting the hang of maneuvering the boats. The guides hug the coast keeping to shallow water where they point out the graceful forms passing beneath us. These are leopard sharks, beautiful and harmless creatures that congregate in the shallows to breed during the summer months. One of the college girls hastily pulls her foot back into her boat, while one of the young children peers over the side with his dive mask.
Moving out into deeper water, we begin gliding through kelp. Our guide pulls hand over hand at a long, loose stalk, bringing its root system or holdfast into his lap. We all crowd around, bobbing calmly in the smooth water, as he unveils a tiny world hidden among these roots: moon snails, brittle stars, crabs and a juvenile octopus that he gently places in the palms of the shark loving boy. A curious sea lion starts to play among our raft of boats, and soon we're paddling again, to visit the sea caves at the base of Deadman's Cliff.
Being a calm day, the guides give us the opportunity to paddle into the grotto. One of the newlywed husbands and I take him up on the offer. Timing the swell, the guide shouts, "go," and we paddle single file through the narrow slot leading into the cave. Inside, the cave opens into a high dome, cool and shady on the hot summer day, our boats gently rising and falling with the surge. Back outside, we catch up to the rest of the group clustered near the rocks, watching a comical drama unfold between two grumpy sea lions arguing over a prime sleeping space. Eventually the newcomer gives up and searches for another spot, stumbling over other sleepers and causing a chorus of complaints.
On the way back to shore, a small group of dolphins surfaces in front if us, startling the nervous college girl and enticing me to risk pulling my camera from its watertight case for a few photos. Tucking it safely away again, I follow the guides' instructions and paddle hard and straight toward the beach as a wave picks up my boat from behind. I lean back, and, for a moment, I'm surfing, but then my boat turns sideways and I'm skipping awkwardly in front of the wave. Somehow, I manage to stay upright and get pushed all the way to the sand. No style points for me, but I look back to see my grotto cohort being rolled by a big set, while the elderly couple expertly negotiate the same wave to either side. Soon we're all back on dry land—some of us drier than others—reminiscing about our adventure. In all the trip has taken less than two hours, but it's given me a memory to last a lifetime.
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