An Otter's Eye View Of Monterey Bay

Silicon Valley is a high-tech mecca, but outside its hermetically sealed, futuristic havens and sculpted office parks are the realities of a crowded industrial zone: clogged freeways, smog, and strip malls that don't exactly inspire business travelers to stick around when work is done. Of course, many visitors just zip an hour north to San Francisco. But for an offbeat, outdoor, and often spectacular day trip from the Valley, consider a 90-minute drive southwest to seaside Monterey.

Some people hear about Monterey and neighbor Carmel, and one word comes to mind: Fore! A round at Pebble Beach or one of the area's other fabled golf courses amid gnarly Monterey cypress is a wonderful day's outing. But if you're a bit more adventurous, consider experiencing the area from a different vantage point: sea level. A few hundred yards off Monterey's wharf, once home to two dozen booming sardine canneries and the backdrop for John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, begins an oceanic canyon extending 100 miles west and deeper than the Grand Canyon. The sardines all but vanished in the 1940s, but the area's underwater geography is rich in other sea life. Otters, sea lions, and porpoises abound, and a forest of kelp species rises up from the ocean floor.

ASK QUESTIONS. Monterey Bay Kayaks (800 649-5357) sends about 7,000 visitors onto the bay annually to explore the kelp beds and soak up the scenery. You can rent kayaks by the hour and paddle around yourself or try one of their popular guided tours of Monterey Bay's southern shore. Monterey Bay Kayaks' marine-biology-savvy guides enjoy answering questions.

On a tour, participants pay $45 for an hour of kayaking instruction and about three hours of paddling. Monterey Bay Kayaks routinely hosts work outings with groups from Silicon Graphics, Oracle Systems, Hewlett-Packard, and other Silicon Valley companies, but it's a great excursion for active business travelers who pack light: All the necessary wet suits, life jackets, and other gear are supplied.

First, paddlers head through a harbor area alive with seabirds, sailboats, and marinas. You're likely to spot a herd of California sea lions sunning on a rock jetty or popping up in the water to get an eyeful of you. But don't even think about touching them: Monterey Bay is a marine sanctuary, and all wildlife are protected.

You cruise along the wharf area, and soon, the water thickens with olive-green fronds of giant kelp, one of the bay's key ecological features. Colorful shellfish ride the flat kelp blades, and playful sea otters are a common sight here.

You don't have to be in great shape to enjoy a few hours of kayaking, a sport that's "quiet and nondisruptive," says Monterey Bay Kayaks owner Cass Schrock. "Almost anyone can do it"--except small children. The sea is usually fairly calm and requires only that you pay attention to navigate safely.

Continuing to paddle along the wharf, ahead you'll see the modern architecture of the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium (408 648-4888). Don't miss a visit there, either before or after your otter's-eye view of the bay. Run by Hewlett-Packard founder David Packard's daughter Julie, the aquarium is a showcase: There's a three-story-high tank that illuminates the "hold fasts" that anchor the amazingly tall kelp plants to the sea floor. In the aquarium's outdoor pool, watch staffers prepare rescued otters to return to the open sea. And even adults love the hands-on "touch pool" where you can handle the exotic-textured "Turkish towel" seaweed, or pet a bat ray.

Both paddling the bay and learning about its bounty at the aquarium are enough to make any visitor want to delve more deeply into marine biology. Thanks to Monterey Bay Kayaks' World Wide Web page at tour, you can do just that on your laptop before or after your visit. There's even a link to a video camera trained on Monterey Bay, providing up-to-the-minute weather conditions. But don't let that keep you home-- virtual Monterey Bay is a pale substitute for the real thing.

Getting There

BY CAR Monterey is a 60-mile, 90-minute drive from San Jose. Take Route 101 South to Highway 156, then cut over west to Highway 1, the coast route. Follow Highway 1 south into downtown Monterey. Monterey Bay Kayaks is at 693 Del Monte Ave.