Whales, sharks, dolphins, sea lions, and big waves by Krista Carlson

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This morning I was talking to Wade about his experience at the Maverick’s surf contest in Half Moon Bay.   He’ll give you all the details, but what struck me was this – people paid $1000 to watch the contest from a boat.  He paddled out on SUP, got a lot closer to the line-up than anyone on the boat, and didn’t pay a dime.  After the conversation, I started thinking about some of the experiences I’ve had on SUP over the years, and how they have changed my life.  In case you’re thinking of taking up the sport, take a moment to consider the world SUP can open up to you.

A few years ago, a pod of blue whales set up camp about three miles off the coast of Redondo Beach.  Apparently the tides had delivered an absolute feast of krill, and the whales, not normally social creatures, had congregated for the dinner of a lifetime.  The local news caught wind of the spectacle, and soon local boat owners were charging huge fees to take out groups to see the phenomenon.  Wade and I drove down to the harbor, parked, took our boards off the car, and followed the primordial sound of their blow holes until we were surrounded by the largest creatures ever to grace the planet.  We paddled around for a couple of hours, watching them gently breathe…once, twice, three times, four times; then, on the fifth breath, we would watch as they made the signature flip of the tail, then submerged for a few minutes to feed.  Here’s a shot of a blue whale about to get lunch:

Later that day, I got on a plane to Chicago, where I was to visit my family in the suburb where I grew up.  I realized what I had just experienced was by far the most unique experience of my life, and something most of my peers growing up could only imagine.  You see, even on the tour boat, you have to stay hundreds of yards away from sea life, and you’re viewing it from twenty feet or more about the water.  With SUP, you can get insanely close to the creatures (ten feet?  Five?), and you’re ON the water.  Wow!

Wade and I are lucky enough to live and work in Marina del Rey.  300 days a year, the sea lions call A Basin home (I have no idea where they go the other days, but once in a while they’re just not on the docks).  Every time we take a lesson out, we paddle over to A Basin, and more often than not I get to spend ten or fifteen minutes watching them play.  I try not to let my students know I delight in this every bit as much as they do, and it never gets old.  Here’s a shot of the pups:

All you have to do is round the breakwall out of the Marina, and you often encounter pods of dolphins.  I’ve seen pods that number in the hundreds, just surrounding you.  Once I even saw two of them in the harbor.  If you’ve never experienced dolphins in the wild, it’s something to behold.  They overwhelm you with a sense of peace and security.  Wade surfing with dolphins:

People ask all the time if I’ve ever seen a shark.  We see benign sharks all the time, in and near the Marina.  There are the leopard sharks that hatch every spring and grow throughout the summer, calling Mothers Beach home.  There are sand sharks on the sand bars just before the breakwall.  And there are nurse sharks just outside the breakwall.  All harmless, though I’ve had a hard time convincing some of my students.  The truth is, most of us who surf regularly have seen a white shark at some point or another.  Let’s face it, the ocean is home for them.  There is a great white who took up residence at San Onofre years ago, just outside the nuclear power plant.  Most agree it’s because she likes the warmer water created by the cooling facility.  In any event, she swam under my board one day while I was out paddling.  This was a bit more nature than I needed, and I hastily paddled away from the power plant.

Another time, also at San Onofre, a paddler in the line-up said she had just seen something huge…maybe a manitee?  (We don’t have manitees on the west coast).  Seconds later, a grey whale spouted right there among all of us.  Grey whales aren’t as big as blue whales, but when they breach, it’s a far more powerful act, not at all peaceful like their much-larger counterparts.  We all stood there watching while she struggled and breached, not really understanding why she was right there in the line-up (far closer to shore than is normal for a whale).  A few days later I was watching the local news, and I learned that a grey whale had beached herself just a few miles away from San Onofre.  I then realized that I had the privilege of being in that whale’s presence during some of its final breaths in what was likely an eighty-year lifetime.

Maybe another time I’ll tell you the story of the seal pup that befriended me and followed me around during a morning SUP session, but I think you get the idea.  SUP is not just great exercise, it’s not just great scenery, it’s a connection to the ocean that you cannot experience in any other way.  Boats are too far removed.  The shore is too far away.  Prone paddling, kayaking, canoeing…you don’t have the vantage point of SUP.  So once you learn the sport, get out there and experience the ocean!  Get out of the harbor, don’t be afraid to fall down a few times, and have experiences that you’ll remember the rest of your life.