After spending much of his young life shying away from swimming in the open sea, Ryan Lawler now makes a living leading adventures along the coast of Orange County.
The Newport Beach native has had a love of fishing from an early age, but when it came to swimming in the ocean, he would envision the film "Jaws" and stick to the shore.
In high school, he faced his fear and took up free diving, which remains one of his many ocean-related hobbies.
"A greater passion for exploring the ocean came with my introduction to free diving," he said. "I got over my fears and started to appreciate everything that was in the ocean."
As a student at Loyola Marymount University, he escaped the hustle and bustle of life in Los Angeles for a more secluded experience on the open Pacific off Newport Beach.
"I would drive down and hit Friday 4 p.m. traffic on the 405 just hoping to get out on the water," he said.
Now, at 25, Lawler has turned his passion for the ocean into a new boat tour that emphasizes Newport's unique coastline while giving guests an up-close look at the marine mammals that live a few miles offshore.
Where some saw a saturated market for boating businesses in Newport Beach, Lawler saw an opportunity to give tourists and locals a different type of adventure.
Lawler bought a six-person, military-style Zodiac inflatable boat on Craigslist and refurbished it for his business, Newport Coastal Adventure.
Traveling on a small boat sets the tour apart from other excursions that often are in larger boats that hold more people. The 23-foot boat can maneuver within feet of rock formations inhabited by California sea lions and can provide a close look at private beaches that guests likely would never see otherwise, Lawler said.
The idea of taking a semi-private whale-watching excursion and pairing it with a coastal tour is new to Newport Beach but has worked well in other markets, Lawler said.
"Very few people have the opportunity to see how stunning our coastline is from Newport Beach to Laguna Beach," said Ryan's father, Drew Lawler, president of Pacific Coast Sportfishing Magazine. "I think it'll be a popular addition to the harbor amenities."
Taking off next to the Balboa Island Ferry landing, where Lawler has secured a commercial dock, the 90-minute excursion starts with a front-row view of the homes along the harbor. The first stop is the coastline of Corona del Mar with its coves, keyhole rocks — one dubbed by locals as Jump Rock — and the 22,000-square-foot Portabello Estate.
The tour continues with a view of the historic beach cottages at Crystal Cove, sitting below the nostalgic Shake Shack.
Continuing south into Laguna Beach, Lawler slows the boat to check out homes along the exclusive Irvine Cove, home to Orange County's largest harbor seal colony. The seals on the intertidal rocks, juxtaposed with stunning views of multimillion-dollar dream homes, make it one of Lawler's favorite tour stops.
"Most people drive by and they don't see it," he said. "If you don't have a private boat, you wouldn't know this exists."
Then it's on to Emerald Bay's half-mile-long private beach, followed by an offshore rock formation, dubbed Seal Rock, that is home to dozens of sea lions.
Lawler picks up speed at this point of the tour, racing one to four miles offshore in search of dolphins and whales. If the water is really clear, one might see a colorful fish or two.
On a chilly Monday morning, Lawler sped the boat away from the coastline, scanning the glassy water for any indication that dolphins might be nearby. A minke whale popped above the surface for a moment before disappearing into the expanse.
Lawler slowed the boat when he saw a large pod of dolphins a few yards away. The social animals went up to the edge of the boat as if to say hello to the onboard patrons just inches away.
"When you have a passion for something, you just want to share it with others," Lawler said.