The words “eco tour” conjure up a certain aura of calm and solitude. A Monterey Bay eco tour, for instance, could involve a long, slow float in the sun, with plenty of time to talk and learn and observe marine life. But as I walk down the dock toward Captain Laurence Henry’s tour boat, Ranger, it’s clear this tour will come at a different speed.
Big Sur native Henry owns a new company on Cannery Row: Fast Raft. His tiny office is adjacent to the Breakwater, nestled inside the harbor’s shipyard and hidden from tourists, but very close to Ranger, his pride and joy.
“The boat is really the highlight of my tour,” Henry says. “You’re really close to the water, you’re very maneuverable, and that allows you to come into places that other boats can’t get to.”
Ranger is designed for military use, a sleek 33 feet, with a sturdy fiberglass hull and inflatable sides. Up front are three pairs of seats, which are more reminiscent of motorcycle saddles than a boat’s bench or a movie theater chair. They are equipped with seatbelts.
“Are we going on a roller coaster?” asks one nervous passenger.
“No,” says another, grinning. “I think we’re in a James Bond movie.”
“WANT TO FEEL LIKE JAMES BOND? TRY THESE ON.”
Bjorn Ibsen, a local-hiking-guide-turned boat-riding-naturalist, hands us matching waterproof track suits and nifty minimalist life vests that only inflate underwater. “Want to feel like James Bond?” he asked. “Try these on.”
Moments later, we all straddle a black, spring-loaded seat in the boat’s bow. My feet barely touch the ground and I cling to the handle bar in front of me. But the boat leaves the harbor slowly and smoothly, and we get eye-to-eye views of the honking sea lions and black cormorants that decorate the Breakwater’s outcropping.
As we leave the harbor we pick up speed. Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Hopkins Marine Station take on an interesting appearance from this angle. Ibsen and Henry point out the boundaries of the Lovers Point State Marine Reserve, and explain that no boats can enter without permission. Then Henry hits the gas, and we head for Carmel Bay.
“Exhilarating” is the one word – and maybe the best word – to describe Ranger at full speed. As the boat accelerates to 25 mph, it begins to leap over waves, springing off the crests and plunging into the troughs. The wind whips across the deck, and the waves splash over the sides. At Henry’s experienced hand, the boat slows and accelerates to take every wave gracefully. But to me, the movements feel almost random. I learn to grip the seat with my legs; that helps when my feet and stomach fly up and we plunge down.
We slow periodically to check out the sights. Henry and Ibsen point out landmarks as we pass, commenting on the geology of the cliffs, the kinds of trees that line the water and the local dive and surf spots. We stop to consider a raft of another sort, a dozen otters, clinging belly-up to the kelp, and Ibsen expounds otter facts. Later, we are graced by a pod of dolphins which dance along to the side of us. Ibsen calls out, spotting a baby leaping beside its mother, and the passengers gape.
Point Lobos is our final destination. On land in the morning mist, it reminds me of a haiku, sparse and twisted yet undeniably beautiful. It loses none of its exotic charm as we approach by sea in the slanted light of late afternoon. We gaze upon the colorful, creviced cliffs, the bony arms of the trees, and the light that streams down into the green water, and feel like the first explorers to land. Every bird and seal we imagine multiplied by thousands as Ibsen speaks of the once incredible – and now returning – abundance of the Monterey Bay area. We picture ourselves rowing to a narrow, sandy beach.
The Ranger is remarkably nimble, a theme echoed by captain and passengers alike. We exploit her abilities to explore Point Lobos up close. But at last, we have to return to the harbor.
As we turn, one passenger yells: “We’re headed straight into the teeth of it!” Yes, the wind has picked up. It rings like a tornado in our ears, and summons the true height of the waves. We are more prepared, though, and we whoop and scream as Ranger speeds shoreward. We pass another tour boat in mere moments, perform a neat doughnut, and then gently return to the dock.
For Henry, this eco tour is about sharing a piece of Monterey Bay.
“It’s a marine education,” he says. “That’s what I’ve always been into.”
An education, certainly. But an adventure, definitely.
FAST RAFT tours are $155 (per tour), ages 12 and up. For tour hours and rental information, visit www.fastraft.com/home