Friday, July 6, 2007

Monterey, California

Summer fog hugs the coast. Kelp dresses the sea surface and sea otters frolic at its edge. Two otters roll and toss together, chasing, playing, or flirting it's hard to tell. Cormorants perch on a lone rock. The cormorants dry their wings to avoid the cold. The otters groom for the same reason, and float high in the water on dense fur (a million hairs per inch).

We pedal down Cannery Row and spot a sleek head poking up from the waves. After scanning the water and pressing up against the fence, one or the other of us suddenly recognizes the fifty or a hundred prone shapes below, an entire haul-out covered with seals. Impossible to miss once you notice them.

Late that night I open the window, fresh air for my roommate and the rumbling drums of waves to bring sleep.

Key West

Key West, Florida. Though one could argue that the Keys are only precariously attached to Florida. Driving in the shuttle, we skim along heavily bulkheaded not-quite-land and someone asks the unspoken, "Does any of this really survive a hurricane?" It is explained that the rip rap has just been replaced.

Diving among placid tarpon, we go with a charter to the protected Western Sambo section of the Florida National Marine Sanctuary. I'm sure I never knew how large a tarpon was, how shiny their silver plates. They seem to know fishing's not allowed here.

Drinking at the end of the continent, we sit by the beach with all the pink midwesterners, all the armed services, and are served by Conch residents. Our divemaster explains why he stopped drinking: it's too easy to do nothing other than drink, when really you could be doing nothing other than being on the water, enjoying the ocean.

Coastal Georgia

Coastal Georgia is an ode to wetlands and a gift of grace. And yes, of all the ocean places on my regular circuit, it's in the top tier. Last year was my first visit to the Jekyll Island Club, among former homes of the Northeast elite, Rockefellers, Goodyears and others famous to those who pay attention to such things. The fishing dock nearby is crowned by a raw bar, the actual shrimp boats run off years ago by this high-end crowd.

Yet late evening still brings a magenta glow to the sheltered water, black tree shadows cast against the glass surface. A friend and I walk beneath the branches of sweet gum and palmetto draped in spanish moss. We tell stories and drink the cool March air.

This is an island where only a few minutes bring my rented bike and me to the beach, to don a wetsuit, float around in the water and amuse the locals. It's really very cold water this time of year so if you live here most folks feel like there's no reason to go in. And so I swim alone on my back, watching terns glide and sandpipers pace with a stiletto gait.

Another night, I wander from our picnic towards two boys fishing from the pier. Flashes of light peak through the boards. We gaze across water ringed by grasses. Something breaks the surface and I can't quite believe it. A dolphin, and then a second smaller dolphin play and approach the pier. Could a baby dolphin really be playing with its mother just like this, just a typical evening in this magical place?

On my second visit to Jekyll, a friend lends me full sea kayaking gear. She narrates a scenic drive around the island with local politics, land use history, kayaking tips, and instructions for the next morning's launch. With a cheery wave I thank them, preparing to rise early the next day and squeeze in a quick exploration before the trip home.

I haul the boat down wet sand under grey skies. Wind and a light chop carry me forward, as I note how important it will be to leave time for the return paddle. Along the shoreline there are mud channels, thick reeds in british racing green, and dense oyster banks that scrape against my paddle. Fingers grow numb, and the herons stay just far enough ahead of my slow progress. Osprey swoop, far-off coastline shows itself around the corner.