Next door and right on the water is the Marine Group Boat Works, a boat-repair facility that works on superyachts and military and commercial vessels. Here concrete docks meet dredged bay waters. The original shoreline has been destroyed, and a large dock juts prominently into the bay, but the company has put effort and money into being environmentally friendly. It has a curbed storm drain system where 100 percent of runoff is captured in a 60,000-gallon storage tank. A 665-ton Marine Travelift, while towering over the bay, does allow the company to lift its vessels onto land to perform repair work, keeping pollutants from entering the water. Projects that require sandblasting and painting are shrink-wrapped to prevent debris from entering the air. But along Bay Boulevard, the view of such businesses with the bay peaking through them is less than inspiring. Rolled barbed-wire rings the Marine Group Boat Works.
As you go south, rusting chain-link fences and No Trespassing signs define the view of the water from the street. The farther you go, the more the buildings and roads deteriorate, with only an occasional wild radish or a bright yellow mustard to add any grace to broken asphalt, weedy ditches, and sagging fences. An odd collection of businesses are in residence here and there, set at varying distances from the water — a medical institute, a cable company, several business parks, a welding-supply company, and at the southern extreme, the South Bay Salt Works.
This historic company, its roots dating back to the 1870s, has significantly deformed the south end of San Diego Bay. Taking up roughly 1000 acres, it produces salt in large evaporation ponds, bordered by old plywood walls and dirt levees. Due to the current hypersalinity of the ponds, native wetland vegetation and bay invertebrates are absent from most of them. The only fish in the ponds come in with the initial intake of tidal water. Once in the system, they can only survive in the lowest-salinity ponds; they cannot escape back into the bay. They do not reproduce. Because of the high salinities within most of the salt ponds, this area provides very little habitat for fish and aquatic plants.
And yet, as is true in many wetlands that have been harmed by business, life has survived in the ruin. The levees that define the ponds are now quasi-islands, nesting grounds for elegant terns, royal terns, and least terns. Brine shrimp and brine flies abound. Researchers have even found extemophiles, microorganisms called haloarchaea, living in the ponds’ highly saline waters.
But on the warm San Diego afternoon that we paddled out into the bay, we weren’t thinking of industry; we were floating in the bay’s shining waters, blessed by a steeply angling sun, ogling the beauty, looking for wonders. We turned in the kayak and looked west toward the Pacific Ocean. The roar of cars on Interstate 5 at our backs, we could see the Silver Strand running north from Imperial Beach to the almost-island town of Coronado, a beautiful narrow strip of sand crowned with red-tiled roofs and glowing palms. Condos, big houses, boat slips, the Hotel Del Coronado, upscale retail — more contrast to the industrial shoreline behind us.
We were floating in the middle of four worlds — one touristy, one residential, one marshy, and one belchy and industrialized. We luxuriated in this watery commons, we soaked in the distances, we beheld the reflective plane, the flat lines as beautiful as those in a John Marin seascape, and then we turned back toward the power plant. My eyes traced the long line of one of the earthen dikes built to create its intake and discharge channels. What a contrast to Coronado’s strand. Chula Vista’s thin strips of fill material are as ugly as a ransacked room, narrow lines of eroding fill dirt and pieces of broken concrete. As we sat in our quiet watery moment, the beauty of the bay broke through like a shy smile. The departing sun glittered across the ocean, over the strand, down the bay, and onto our faces. The breeze became gentle, the water smoothed, and then suddenly, very near, we saw what we had come to see.
A large, curious head and curving protective shell broke the surface of the water. We weren’t alone. Swimming very near was a giant green sea turtle, one from the group of turtles that have made their residence in the warm waters of the power plant. One doesn’t have to go far in Chula Vista to see the marine treasures. We had come to find them, and they were here. In 2009, Forbes magazine rated Chula Vista as one of the most boring cities in America. That’s interesting. Are there boring places? Or are there only bored people in uninvestigated places?
We watched transfixed as the turtle broke the surface, opened its mouth, and then slipped back into the depths. It was a sighting of a wonder. It fell into the neural folder in my mind that held all the other sea turtles I have ever encountered. It found space beside the turtle I swam with two years ago on a gorgeous California summer day in La Jolla. That day, my marine buddy and I paddled together from La Jolla Shores to the La Jolla Cove through glitteringly clear water, moving in tandem through the sparkling blue Pacific.
It landed in the same neurological row as the baby turtle I discovered while snorkeling off the west coast of Maui last summer. I found this little one on the bottom, sleeping under a rock shelf, then coming up to breathe with me and descending again in a slow arc to safer quarters. Sea turtles — they are part of the beauty that we paddle through life with.
Sixty or so green turtles, Chelonia mydas, live in shallow waters off the shores of Chula Vista. They are an isolated colony, far from their relatives living to the south in Los Cabos or in the Gulf of Mexico. The community’s matriarch is a turtle named Wrinklebutt. In 2006, researchers weighed her at 574.2 pounds. The Union-Tribune labeled her “the largest Eastern Pacific green turtle on record.” She is the superyacht of the San Diego Bay.