• Otter Views: Barefoot in the Wet Zone

    All along the Central Coast, the July 4th weekend exerts a sort of tidal pull, drawing residents and visitors toward what I call the “wet zone.” This is the glistening strip of shoreline where the Pacific meets the continent and saturates its leading edge.

    Here in PG, it’s easy to experience the wet zone. Just go to Lovers Point, Asilomar or Spanish Bay, doff your shoes, walk to the water’s edge, and step barefoot onto cool sand. Every summer, countless thousands trek to Monterey Bay to explore the Aquarium and Cannery Row, bike the rec trail, and sample chowder on Fisherman’s Wharf. At some point, many also vsit the wet zone. It’s like a door opened between two worlds, tempting us to stand for a moment with a foot in each.

    Some go through the door. Swimming, paddling or boating, they leave the land behind and become temporary citizens of Monterey Bay. Likewise, the bay sends some of its citizens ashore: harbor seals, starfish, jellies and the occasional confused hermit crab. How would it feel to go through the door to their world? Someday, submarine ecotours might take us to the bay’s undersea Grand Canyon. Jetting over chasms lit by fiery plumes of bubbles, our spotlights will pick out spidery bottom walkers and skeletal fish that haunt the eternal night two miles below the surface.

    But for the moment, the bay remains a mystery. We can see it, hear it, feel it, even inhale its chill breath, but we can’t go there. All most can do is gaze wonderingly from the wet zone on shore.

    Still, something remarkable happens on that strip of sand. Even the sternest people roll up their cuffs, stand ankle deep in a seltzer blast of foam, and laugh like kids. All over the world, the shore works the same magic on us. We feel wonder, childlike bliss, and a kind of quiet rapture. We may be at our best at the beach.

    It’s like looking at the moon. All over the globe, we see the same moon in the same phase. The wet zone unites us in a similar way. Just as all oceans are connected, so are all shores. Stand on the wet part of any beach, and you share simultaneous marine exhilaration with millions.

    It could also be that when we stand in the wet zone, we feel the pull of greater depths. Through those depths glide the world’s smallest and largest creatures, from microscopic plankton to the great whales whose songs ping and boom for a thousand miles. Giant squids 50 feet long live in Monterey Bay, and its vast kelp groves rival any terrestrial forest. Every surfer’s nightmare, the Great White shark, prowls these waters as well.

    But while Great Whites sell more T-shirts, the tidal world is what catches the eye. Shiny blue-black mussels and orange starfish cling to weathered pilings. Every rocky pool is a miniature garden of purple seaweed, verdant mosses, twinkling stones and blue-green anemones. Among the surf-buffeted plants and fiery sea fans move tiny gardeners: hermit crabs, shrimp, minnows darting like a shower of silver arrows.

    Farther offshore, bushy-faced otters slip through kelp beds, dive for crustaceans, display their catch on sleek bellies. Sleeker still are the bay’s seals and sea lions, who pop up at unexpected times, fixing startled swimmers with a soft-eyed, curious stare. Then they glide off to some wharf or pinnacle to bellow in mournful, foghorn voices.

    Also visible, if not audible, are the bay’s most graceful mammals, schools of dolphins whose smooth, dark backs glisten like wet inner tubes. Below them, shoals of mackerel and torpedo-shaped bonitos keep a watchful eye for hunting shadows overhead. Deeper still, rays glide like spacecraft over the sandy bottom or burrow into it until only their eyes remain.

    Monterey Bay teems with life, but so do its skies and estuaries. Beyond number are the bay’s bickering gulls, dive-bombing pelicans, red-throated pigeon guillemots, and squadrons of passing sanderlings that darken the horizon for days. Along the beaches skitter curlews, stilts and sandpipers, their beaks probing the foamline for burrowing crustaceans. Their white plumage and frantic pace give them the look of hospital or- derlies racing to some emergency.

    Happily for us, some emergencies were averted. If a small army of courageous citizens had not waged a 20-year battle against the petrochemical industry, Monterey Bay would today be a vast undersea oil field. Tar balls would foul the sand; leaks and oil spills would endanger the species that dwell in and around the bay.

    If you walk the wet zone this 4th of July, enjoy every moment. But spare a thought also for those who created the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary. We owe them our continued vigilance.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on July 3, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views


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