I’ve always thought of myself as an ocean guy. I grew up on the Atlantic — to be more precise, smack on Long Island Sound, that expanse of salt water that marries the shorelines of Connecticut and Long Island — and spent my boyhood exploring the marshes, estuaries and mudflats of that usually calm body of water. It’s a rich resource, fascinating for the diversity of its life forms and justly famous for its clams, oysters, bluefish and striped bass.
But then a few years ago, I settled in Fort Bragg — a town with a working harbor that reminded me in surprising ways of the small Connecticut port where I grew up — and quickly got involved with the Noyo Center for Marine Science, an organization dedicated to inspiring ocean conservation through education and research into this region’s extraordinary coastline and its inhabitants, a new realm for me in a radically different environment.
While I lost little time acquiring a kayak and exploring Mendocino County’s rivers and estuaries, it took a while for me to find myself out on the roiling Pacific — until last week, in fact, when I boarded the Noyo Harbor-based Telstar for this season’s final Noyo Center led “Noyo at Sea” outing. For the past few years the Center has led cruises aboard the Telstar from May through October, with a particular focus on introducing young people to the ocean. So, last Wednesday, after popping some dramamine, I joined Noyo Center educators Sarah Grimes and Sue Coulter and a group of elementary through high school students for a few hours out on the deep. An added plus was the presence of marine biologist Tanya Smart and several of her Mendocino College marine mammal students and, of course, Captain Randy of the Telstar and his crewman Casey, both thoroughly knowledgeable mariners.
Naturally, we were all hoping for whales. But October is a little early for the Gray Whales that usually show up closer to Thanksgiving. Blues, Fins, Minkes, Humpbacks, Orcas and others visit from time to time, but their presence is never a given. Aside from whales, these trips bring dolphins, pinnipeds, birds, and sometimes even a rockfish or two are brought onboard to show the kids. I settled in to enjoy a glorious sunny day on the water, content to see whatever came our way.
And we weren’t disappointed. While still docked, we encountered a few barking California sea lions — noisy distant cousins to the more common harbor seals — and met many more beyond the harbor, cavorting on and around the two buoys that mark the seaward channel. Intermingled with the California sea lions were a few of the much rarer Steller sea lions, a sighting that alone made the trip worthwhile.
Nature had more in store. The presence of a swarm of krill — small crustaceans that feed the largest blue whales– had drawn both fish and birdlife and it wasn’t long before we were enjoying a school of ocean sunfish, a pre-historic looking fish capable of growing to over a ton, largely on a diet of jellyfish. These aptly named fish tend to role over on one side and bask at the surface of the water to warm up. While these were relatively small, they were busily gobbling up krill to supplement their usual jellyfish fare and wonderful to see up close. Also joining the feast were phalaropes — small, beautiful water birds that migrate annually from the arctic to the tropics and spend most of their lives out of sight on the open ocean.
But the best was still to come. Some three miles out a shriek went up from the bow as one of the students spotted a whale spout — a Humpback! — immediately followed by several others. Our luck complete, we had cruised into the midst of a pod of humpbacks — perhaps six or seven — busily gorging on the abundant krill. Unbothered by our presence, the whales lingered near our boat for about an hour until we, reluctantly, broke off the encounter and headed back to Noyo Harbor. It was an afternoon of breathtaking beauty and, for an East Coast transplant like me, a captivating introduction to the Pacific’s mysteries. Judging by the excited cries and rapturous smiles, our students felt the same.
The Noyo Center will resume its “Noyo at Sea” program in the spring. Trips aboard the Telstar are available for sport fishing and whale watching year-round.