The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has been called the ‘Serengeti of the Sea’ and now is a great time to see why. Just months ago schools of anchovies were flooding the bay, luring large numbers of marine mammals. Humpback whales, dolphins, sea otters and seals were regular sights along the Santa Cruz shore. Although the unusually close coastal encounters may have tapered, wildlife is still bustling out in the Bay. But for the best views, you’ll need to hop on a boat.
I had an opportunity to join a recent sail with O’Neill Yacht Charters. Yep, the same O’Neill that graces surfboards and t-shirts around town. Local surf legend Jack O’Neill invented the wet suit and his family owns and operates a beautiful 65′ Team O’Neill catamaran. Jack’s son, Tim O’Neill, is one of the boat’s skippers.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the Santa Cruz harbor (where you’ll also find the famous Crow’s Nest restaurant) and got my boarding pass at Dock L. After marveling at some impressive boats and the occasional seal plopped up on the docks, I joined families, couples and groups of friends as we boarded the catamaran.
After a quick intro to the vessel — Where are the bathrooms? Where is the bar?! — we were cruising out of the harbor, past the Walton Lighthouse, waving at stand up paddle boarders and a group of kids playing along the jetty. As you set out toward open water, you quickly realize there are few things more thrilling than being on the bay with the late afternoon sun glistening on the water and a gentle breeze of sweet-salty sea air.
The expansive catamaran has plenty of topside seating, but I enjoyed leaning against the railing, peering out over the edge. There’s also a cool, woven “trampoline” that extends between the front portions of the two pontoons. You can grab a drink from the galley bar and spread out over the rippling water below.
As we rounded the lighthouse, the catamaran skirted the shore passing beach goers at Seabright Beach and the twirling rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. We floated past lush kelp beds topped with sea otters who paid us no mind as they munched snacks off their bellies.
As we sailed around the Wharf — whose lower levels were teeming with barking sea lions — the crew hoisted the front sail and headed deeper into bay. The water turned a deep, gorgeous hue and waves appeared more lush. In the distance, by the Mark Abbott lighthouse that’s home to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, we saw both the plume and dark shape of a humpback whale barely surface above the water.
Before we knew it, an hour had passed and our skipper sailed us back into the harbor. I’m already in awe of the Monterey Bay, but the experience — equally relaxing and exhilarating — lent a new perspective and sense of marvel to this magnificent marine sanctuary.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
O’Neill Yacht Charters offer a variety of public sails — daytime, sunset, local beer and wine tasting, etc. — that range 1 to 1.5-hours. Tickets are $20-40. Kids four and under sail for free (please call to confirm). The public sailing season runs April through October but private charters — think corporate events, special occasions and memorials — are available year-round. Worried about seasickness? The majority of the sail was on smooth waters. Once we headed deeper into the bay, there were a few swells but they were more thrilling than worrying. I’m prone to motion sickness and at no time did I feel woozy. Tickets can be purchased online or over the phone at 831.818.3645.
WANT MORE WAYS TO GET OUT ON THE WATER?
Santa Cruz County offers a variety of oceanic adventures and fun for all ages. Click here for to learn more about our sailing charters, fishing opportunities, SUP and kayak rentals, surf lessons and more.