Santa Cruz harbor is a great launching point for a day on the water. Convenient to get to and surrounded by the amenities of Santa Cruz, the harbor is friendly to families and beginners but also offers access to the many adventures to be had on Monterey Bay. The harbor itself is well protected behind a substantial breakwater, giving true first-timers a place to learn the basic strokes and get the feel of their vessels (though powerboat and sailboat traffic must be yielded to). Turn the corner past the break, however, and the Pacific Ocean opens up in front of you.
Most paddlers will head for the Santa Cruz Wharf, the kelp beds around reknowned surf spot Steamer Lane and Seal Rock to the west, and past Seabright State Beach and the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk. A round trip from the harbor to the wharf is 4 to 5 miles and a few hours at a leisurely pace. Seals and sea lions congregating at these landmarks can be heard across the bay, and dolphins, whales, porpoises, otters, pelagic birds, and other marine life are frequently spotted along the way. The bay offers open-water ocean kayaking while retaining some of the comfort and safety of having fellow kayakers and boaters in the vicinity. Several local guide services are available to help beginners get started, and the bay is accessible to a wide range of abilities, though all paddlers should be prepared for ocean conditions including swells, wind, weather, tides, and tidal currents. Local rental outfits such as Kayak Connection make a day on the water a cinch.
Migrating whales can be seen passing through Monterey Bay essentially year round. Humpback and blue whale sightings typically peak in September or October, while gray whale sightings typically peak in the winter months from December through March. In high years, a kayaker may see dozens of humpback whales in one morning, a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle that is not to be missed. If you are not paddling with an experienced guide service, be sure you understand the habits of the creatures you are hoping to view and how to approach and enjoy them safely. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary offers tips and resources for hopeful wildlife enthusiasts.