Let’s say you’re a redhead. Duck, that is. Or a scaup. Or a falcon looking for rabbits. Or a coot, ruddy duck, bufflehead, or — more likely over Mission Bay these days — a seagull or a crow. Whatever, you’re aloft over the park’s eastern shoreline. You might spot a lone rider below, dusting doggedly over reddy dirt that’s patchworked with cream-and-yellow-flowering groundcover. And you might hear him muttering to himself, because there’s no one else around, “Gimme a break. This ain’t no bay. This is an inland sea!”
That’s yours truly on the bike, juddering along happily enough, except that after maybe ten miles and a couple of arched-bridge crossings, the butt’s feeling battered and the calves are asking for a time-out. The idea was simple enough: just ride around Mission Bay, for a lark, because, really, who gives it a moment’s thought? You usually whisk right past on Interstate 5, maybe pause a moment to think, “Oh, those poor people in De Anza Cove. If I had a mobile home there, I’d fight too.” Then you’re looking at SeaWorld and crossing the river. That’s it: Most people’s experience of what’s been called (depending on who you talk to) the finest aquatic park in America, or the finest example of a major, man-made ecological tragedy.
Here though, on your big-tire bike, you’re not sweating the Big Stuff. You’re more worried about snakes, rabbits, weirdos jumping out of bushes, or getting a puncture. Because, out here, you are alone. You pedal past Perez Cove, South Pacific Passage, and Hidden Anchorage, seeing distant women slick by in their rowing eights, or dozens of grunting paddlers digging the choppy waters from a pair of dragon boats. But then, nothing. Just you, the bobbing bike, and a silent land that feels as unexploited right now as on that Thursday, September 28, 1542, when Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo spied it from his galleon, San Salvador. He was right off Point Loma, trying to decide which “harbor” to try, and he realized — just in time — that this was a tidal marsh, that the real bay was on the south side of Point Loma. He called these meandering sloughs “False Bay.”
False Bay, maybe, but, after the Big Intervention, in the 1940s–’50s, a true inland sea. From here, you look west and north to straits, bays, islands, distant patches of water. And you suddenly appreciate: this place is vast! What an incredible project for San Diego to take on, to create a play park on this colossal scale.
To quote the city’s Parks and Recreation Department website: “Mission Bay Park is the largest man-made aquatic park in the country, consisting of 4235 acres, approximately 46 percent land and 54 percent water. The park offers a wide range of recreational activities, including paths for walking and jogging, and playgrounds for children. It is one of San Diego’s most popular locations to fly a kite, picnic, or sail a model yacht. Fire rings make it possible to cook out and stay warm. Mission Bay Park also offers a variety of free opportunities to the public, such as professional volleyball and Over-the-Line sporting events. Annual attendance in the park is estimated at 15 million.”
How big a deal is that? Twenty-five million cubic yards of sand and silt were dredged to create the land forms of the park, now almost entirely man-made. The San Diego River no longer filters into the ocean through Mission Bay. It has been reduced, for its last mile, to the indignity of a levee-constricted flood-control channel beside the bay. And all to create a kind of giant Disneyland of sparkling white artificial beaches, artificial islands, vacation apartments, jet-ski rental shops, and jogging trails to everywhere except the government island in the middle of Fiesta Bay. (They call that the “Bowling Pin,” because of the shape of the navigation-aid tower sticking up from the middle of the island.)
That’s one Mission Bay. The other? The flyway stopover to millions of birds, the spawning ground for billions of fish? The city virtually said “scram” to that — to the creatures, great and small, who lived here before the decision was made to create a “world-class” attraction (a term that all smaller cities — and San Diego back then was small — attach to their bigger projects).
I’m making this calf-killing circumnavigation to see if there’s a “real” Mission Bay under the Club Med happy-happy façade. Whether, even with its man-made heart, it has developed a sustainable ecosystem it can truly call its own.
I unhitch my bike from the rack of the Number 9 bus next to Perez Cove and SeaWorld, but more interestingly, next to Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute. First thing I notice is that all of Perez Cove, and the “South Pacific Passage” beyond, is neatly contained between rock revetments on all sides of the channel. This is a tidy bay. Maybe too tidy. Like some giant’s garden pond, nothing rough and ready, nothing left to chance and nature. The second thing that stands out is the noises coming from the treetops in the Institute’s garden. I look up, and there, high in the branches of three Torrey pines that lean out over the bay, sit dozens of giant stick-nests. An almost-grown bird looks down at me. It’s a great blue heron. A parent swoops out of a nearby nest and heads down over the waters. Score one for wildlife, beyond Shamu’s cage.
I’m not quite sure which direction to go, so I ride west under the Ingraham Street bridge to the Quivira yacht basin. One or two sea lions bark out from the bait barge moored in the middle of the basin, and I can hear the smack-smack of 100 halyards blowing against their aluminum masts. Fishing boats sit groaning against each other. The names appear in big block letters across their transoms: The Pacific Voyager, Legend, Cortez, New Seaforth. One is hauling in her hawsers at the bait barge, heading out toward the channel; it’s a large boat, with lots of people aboard. You have to wonder: Is she heading south for Cabo, San Nicolas Islands? The French island, Clipperton? Or just the kelp beds off La Jolla?