Barking lion.

A day that started with a plan to see a killer whale ended with us swimming with sharks.

We had had a long-term plan to go to SeaWorld today. That plan came to a screeching halt this morning over breakfast when we slipped into a discussion of the ethics of having dolphins and whales perform for us. Jennifer and I were quietly pleased when the boys decided that it was ‘wrong’ and that we should not encourage SeaWorld by giving them any money.

That bought us to Plan B and we moved our plan for tomorrow up to today. We drove up to the beachside suburb of La Jolla to go kayaking. As we walked down to the sea with our guide the boys were recounting some of the highlights of our year of travel around the world. At that point we weren’t aware that we’d be adding today to that list.

Harbour seal.

La Jolla is a headland surrounded on three sides by ocean bluffs and beaches. It’s a lovely sea-side community with a major marine reserve stretching from the coast to several hundred metres off-shore. We set off through the surf on double-kayaks and headed out towards the sandstone cliffs that edge the beaches. The sandstone is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it has been eroded to form a series of caves and pillars that are one of the features of the area. On the other hand, on-going erosion threatens enormous villas that sit atop the cliff-edges. As you paddle towards the cliff your first impression is that it is riddled with holes. It is only when you get closer that you realise that what appear to be holes from a distance are in fact thousands of pitch-black cormorants nesting on tiny vertical ridges.

Do not disturb.

Almost as soon as we were under the cliffs a harbour seal poked its sleek head up a few meters away from the kayaks and checked us out. We were pretty thrilled with that, but there was better to come. As we turned a slight corner to arrive at a crack in the cliff-face we found five or six sea lions basking on a rock just in front of us. We were literally inches away from them as they lazily regarded us with pretty much complete indifference. We soon realised that many of the rocks along the beach had groups of sea lions on them, the dominant males making aggressive barking sounds to claim the territory, but otherwise not really moving in the midday sun.

Pelican preening.

The crack in the cliff face proved to be a cave. It reminded us greatly of the cave we’d found on Inishbofin Island in Ireland, except that this time we entered from the seaward side on kayaks. A thin, dark crack took us into the cliff and the widened out into a little green pool of deep water. Ahead the ceiling had collapsed, allowing sunlight to pour in and plants to gain a foothold around a little beach. It was a lovely little spot and kayaking in and out on the waves was exciting.

After the cave, we headed more out to sea to visit a kelp forest. There we learnt that kelp can grow up to three feet in a day, and we saw some bottle-nosed dolphins in the middle-distance. We also learnt that if you take the little bubbles that the kelp fronds use to float and squeeze them between your fingers they shoot between kayaks in a very satisfying fashion. All the while we were surrounded by birds: big Pacific Gulls floating overhead, cormorants whizzing past at head-height and pelicans wheeling by in formation.

All too soon it was time to head back into the beach. We rested a moment beyond the breakers and then surfed in to the shore. All went well until we spotted the sharks. There were probably twenty reasonably sized sharks cruising amongst the breakers, clearly visible in the pristine, clear water. One of the other kayaks lost focus and slid in front of Declan and me, we held for a moment and then both kayaks tipped and we found ourselves in the water. We were not, I have to say, in the water for long as we abandoned our vessel and bee-lined for the sand.

It really was a great day. Clean fresh air, lovely water, a bit of exercise and excitement, and so many wonderful animals. That’s the way to have an ethically satisfying day.