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Out of the Blue: Laguna's beauty and ocean life overwhelms

Our string of perfect weather has been nothing short of ridiculous.

It's hard not to succumb to gloating, especially when one reads about the miserable winter so many are having. But be careful. The duality of life means some sort of divine retribution awaits us.

I make my living off the sun, but these days I pray for rain, and not just because things grow from it and fire is retarded by it, but also because in Mammoth, winter rain is called snow.

Still, it's hard not to marinate in the awesomeness of our awesomeness. I had one such "marination" worth gloating about on Jan. 13. It was late afternoon, and like most days I struggled to finish work and get out the door for a paddle before it was too late. Winter days end too quickly.

My instinct told me to grab my waterproof camera. I couldn't place it, and time was ticking. For a split second I thought about my unprotected iPhone, but for those of you who read my column, you know that was flirting with disaster.

So I left the phone and hoofed it down to Brooks, never breaking stride as the small waves parted and a launch corridor magically opened. A handful of groms were surfing perfect slow rollers in the ultra "flassy" conditions (flat and glassy). I passed the surf zone and headed north through the giant kelp bed that has taken up residence, marvelously stoking our marine life.

I was threading the kelp with a combination of J strokes and sweeps, trying to avoid paddling right through them and experiencing the jerk of kelp catching fins. I looked 10 feet ahead, plotting my next move, like a skier or trail runner.

When I finally looked up to survey my surroundings, I had that moment so many have had through the generations: amazement at how beautiful Laguna is. There is something particularly magical about the late afternoon colors of winter. Photographers call it saturation, that deep, rich palette that nearly drips off your retina.

Our coastline was a vivid mix of dark green and brown, which, mixed with reflections from the sun, actually looked gold. Shiny, gilded and bestowed with embarrassing riches. The sky was a softening powder blue. The water beneath a thick azure with the inviting clarity that makes you thirsty to get in it. I thought, "Where is my camera?"

For a moment I was overtaken with frustration and self-loathing. But then I thought, "So you won't get validation of how great your life is on Instagram. Take a mental picture and get over it."

It was then I saw them — on the horizon. Whales. Maybe only a quarter mile off Rockpile. Two boats were tracking them, and I could make out a couple of paddleboarders, undoubtedly getting great pictures of the whales' flukes, which the marine mammals were "peacocking" for the crowd.

I started paddling furiously in their direction. The sun was sinking fast toward Catalina. But the whales stopped surfacing and the boats turned back. Crestfallen, I paused, turned south to the shimmering coastline, and made out a huge school of dolphins where I started at Brooks.

I wasn't sure which way they were going, but like a toddler seeing a shiny new thing, I instantly forgot the whales and started paddling toward them.

I gradually swiveled my view back toward the sun, and lo and behold the whale boats had turned and were once again heading in my direction. A whale casually dove with its fluke gracing the air, and now I was determined to get there again. Only I was startled by the school of dolphins suddenly engulfing me.

But they weren't dolphins. They were sea lions. By far the largest pod I had ever seen.

Hundreds of them, silently swimming by, diving in and out, completely ignoring me. They were determined and on the move, like a herd of wildebeests. I could only laugh and cheer them on. Where were they going? They couldn't all fit on Seal Rock.

Back to those whales. Sadly, they had turned again and were heading farther out to sea, the boats angling away. With dusk fast upon us, I realized it was a futile chase and drifted to a halt. I settled for one more long, 360-degree scan of the awesome Laguna surroundings, which stimulate the senses in ways few other outdoor scenes can.

Now the sun had dipped behind Catalina, and we were fast migrating to a whole different movie. The ocean was turning a dark, foreboding cobalt, the sky softening to pink and purple. A nearly full moon took its bow in the center of the sky, beaming munificently.

A flock of pelicans glided effortlessly just above the surface like stealth bombers, while a gaggle of cormorant flew an elegant formation above me. Everywhere there was life. The pink clouds were expanding. And the coastline was now pulsating gold.

I paddled past the groms and onto a wave that deposited me easefully onto the sand. It was all too easy. I had the memories, even without the pics.

But then Wednesday came.

I was out again on a paddleboard, this time in north Laguna. A small recreational boat, a cute little Ranger Tug, suddenly crept up on me.

"Excuse me," a woman called. "I know this is a longshot, but do you happen to know the woman who was paddleboarding out here with whales on Monday?"

"I don't," I answered, thinking it really should have been me. "Why?"

"We have some professional-quality pictures of her with whales, and we were hoping to find her."

Gay and Hank are a retired couple living on their boat, and living the life. Gay showed me the amazing pics her friend Ty Hagenson had taken of the whale encounter. I told her I thought I could help. I know most of the paddleboarders who depart Fisherman's Cove, in particular one who goes out daily in search of whales.

As fate would have it, I quickly found Rich German, also known as The Whale Hunter, a north Laguna resident who has made it his avocation to snap dramatic whale shots from his paddleboard and post them to his amazed Facebook fan base.

He immediately told me that the woman in question was Sarah Lynch, a local Realtor whom he had taken out to see whales for the first time. We shared the photos with her, I put Sarah in touch with Gay, and soon everyone was wallowing in the joy a whale had brought us.

Proof that our ocean is abundant and our hills are indeed dipped in gold.

BILLY FRIED is the chief paddling officer of La Vida Laguna and member of the board of Transition Laguna. He can be reached at billy@lavidalaguna.com.

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