The Big Sweep

Motion of the Ocean

With all this Pacific, you've got to get on, in, or under the water. A recent half-day romp in a rented 22-foot sloop ranks among my lifetime best short sails. The stiff northwesterly breeze, a given on most afternoons, has the boat dipping its leeward rail in a six-foot swell from an offshore blow. Sea mist gives a mythic vagueness to the massive mountains to the north, where the boat wants to go on its most perfect northerly tack. But the slow processional of ocean swells, which loom and then lift the boat, is prettier than the mountains.
A few miles shoreward, surfers commune with the same swells. If you're feeling ambitious, take a shot at the iconic L.A. beach sport. But I've always preferred the easier, instant-gratification form of wave riding—namely, bodyboarding—which is particularly prime on the north side of Manhattan Pier (mile 17.5 on the bike trail). From rental outfits in Marina del Rey and Santa Monica, you can also set out in a plastic sit-upon sea kayak—provided you hit the water early, since afternoon waves can top eight feet. Local diehards paddling sleeker craft make the 22-mile crossing to Catalina from Long Beach.

Snorkeling and shore diving, always cheaper thrills than boat dives, are also dead easy in these parts, particularly off Redondo. Late summer brings peak conditions: The Santa Ana winds push sediment-clouded surface waters out to sea.
Near Redondo Pier, at the steps below Veteran's Park, divers swim 75 yards to the edge of an underwater canyon with visibility up to 40 feet. The year-round populace of octopuses, halibut, and crustaceans (including some monster 12-pound lobsters) is healthy and abundant. If you visit during November, book a night dive to watch thousands of spawn-ready squid gather near the ocean floor, their finger-shaped egg sacs swaying like a field of pale, membranous flowers. Predators such as blue sharks, bonito, and seals always make a point to swing by, a tradition that seems less cruel once you know that both male and female squid die after their fertilization orgy.
Just south in Palos Verdes, steep approach paths make tank-hauling more onerous, but the shore diving and snorkeling are some of southern California's best. From Paseo del Mar, walk down to Malaga Cove, where the beach ends and the peninsula's rocky shallows, reefs, and 100-foot kelp forests begin. When the cove isn't murked up by runoff or onshore waves, you can meet bat rays, angel sharks buried in sand, surprisingly friendly fluorescent orange garibaldi, and rocks encrusted with bright sponges and sea squirts.
What's really startling, though, is finding this pulsing, polychrome fauna at the edge of Santa Monica Bay. The bay, in this sense, is coastal L.A. and the entire city in microcosm. It's closer to nature, more full of life—from anemones to one-man rock bands on skates—and a much better place to hang out and play than its besmirched reputation suggests. If you can't get past the idea of L.A., just think of this experience as a multisport adventure in a world-class human wildlife park.

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