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Ecotourism Fun in San Diego

Scripps PreserveDon’t let the fact that San Diego is America’s seventh most populated city mask the fact that this metropolis, sandwiched between the Laguna Mountains and sparkling Pacific Ocean, is every bit a nature – and sun – lover’s dream. With temperatures typically in the 70s or 80s and plentiful sunshine, there’s rarely a day you can’t catch the sunset, go for a ocean kayak trip or bike some of the hundreds of miles of bike trails or pathways that weave through the city.

This first of a two-part blog based on my family’s recent wintertime escape in February, highlights the ecotourism adventures to be had, on land, water or, if you’re truly adventurous, in the air.

Marine Sanctuary

We hit the waters of the La Jolla Cove in an ocean kayak on Everyday California’s Sea Cave Excursion. Our 90-minute paddle included a stop at – and inside — the La Jolla Sea Cave known as “the clam,” plus some hang time with Sea Lions and colorful narration by our guide Cara about the natural and cultural history of the area.  The caves are only accessible by water, in a kayak.

“The La Jolla Preserve has four distinct micro-habitats,” explains Kara Drown, as she guides us toward the caves after a stop to talk about the La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Preserve. “We’re paddling through three of them, the kelp forest, sandy flats and rocky reef. The Preserve is a Marine Protected Area that has one of the highest concentrations of sea life anywhere along the coast of California.”

As it turns out, the cove is ideal for kayaking and stand up paddle boarding, with its relatively calm and sheltered waters. Boats are restricted inside the buoys marking the 6,000 acre-wide preserve area of tidal shoals, shoreline and ocean floor.

Whale seen from Hornblower Cruises 

Looking to get further out on the open water and eager to catch a glimpse of the migrating Gray Whales, we embarked with Hornblower Cruises for their afternoon whale-watching excursion.  Once we were out of the busy harbor, Karen Marshall, an enthusiastic docent with the San Diego Natural History Museum and on board our ship, jokingly had the whole boatload of us imitating whale calls like Dory in Saving Nemo, calling out to the whales. It worked.

Besides watching the playful tail-slamming of many Gray Whales, our group was treated to several sightings of two Humpback Whales along with the rare spotting of a huge Blue Whale, the largest of all the whales. As it turns out, the whales are so plentiful here that you’re guaranteed to see them or you can return on a different day with Hornblower to try again for free.

“These whales are truly some of the most magnificent beings on Earth,” shares Marshall, as she showed us sections of a whale baleen and jawbones during our return to the dock.

Terrestrial Playground

There’s plenty to do on land, too. With the weather what it is, walking the miles of coastal beaches, bicycling or skateboarding some of the hundreds of miles of pathways, or hiking inland desert of mountain trails comes naturally.

Our favorite spots were hiking along the Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach as the sun turns the rocky coastline golden. Another standby are the paths in the “knoll” or “cliffs” of the upland portions of the Scripps Coastal Reserve.

Giant Panda at San Diego Zoo 

Among the highlights for many visitors is world-renowned San Diego Zoo, as much a conservation initiative as it is an educational and entertaining refuge nestled right in the heart of the city. This lush 100-acre oasis, spectacularly landscaped, is home for over 3,500 threatened or endangered animals and representing as many as 650 species and subspecies.

Located inside the 1,200-acre Balboa Park, the zoo showcases over 700,000 exotic plants, adding to its biological richness. We brought a picnic lunch and savored it in the cool shade of the fern forest and to the sounds of a cascading river and an occasional distant call from a peacock.

Without a doubt, the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Pandas are a huge draw, and for good reason. Besides their adorable black-and-white-patterned appeal, they serve as one of the faces of the global conservation movement.  It’s estimated that there’s fewer than 2,000 endangered Giant Pandas left on the planet in the mountains of central China and less than 300 in captivity.

So whether for continued breeding or used as leverage to help draw attention and funds to support habitat conservation, the presence of these pandas are a step in understanding the issues they, and many other species, face. The San Diego Zoo as well as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research are operated by the nonprofit San Diego Zoo Global.

In the Air

Just north of ritzy La Jolla, sits the Torrey Pines Gliderport, America’s top spot for paragliding and hang gliding. For an adrenaline rush without a drop of fossil fuels, you can soar over the side of the cliff, catching a current of air, strapped onto your pilot who steers your parachute or glider over the cliffs and Blacks Beach about two hundred feet below. Paragliding tandem instructional flights last about 25 minutes, and cover your lift off, flight and landing under the direction of a certified instructor.

In our next post, we’d reveal the culinary adventures to be had, and a few places where you can catch some rest that go easy on the Earth.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son, Liam, millions of ladybugs, and a 10-kW Bergey wind turbine. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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