We were off to see the turtles, the green sea turtles of the San Gabriel River. A pair of power plants spewing warm water created an ideal temperature that brought the chelonians north, far from the tropical waters where they spawned. Their existence had been dismissed as cryptobiology until a team from the Aquarium of the Pacific arrived at the spot and confirmed that they were the real thing come for a spa. Lynn and I had seen sea turtles or honu in Hawaii. This was our first attempt to view them closer to home.
We began our walk at the Los Alamitos Marina in Long Beach where we parked before crossing the Marina Drive Bridge to the trail. I swung us south to the mouth of the river so that I could give our trip a little symbolic connection by walking parallel to the path that the turtles took from the ocean to the power plants. A tidal bore formed as the tide rose to meet the waters of the estuary. Waves swirled without much advance in either direction until the force of the moon overwhelmed the gravity of the land. A large rust-bucket freighter — barely visible through the haze — was stationed offshore. Gulls watched us pass. Bathers did not know to make of our backpacks and broad-brimmed hats. We did not stay long. We were in a hurry to see the turtles before a predicted thunderstorm wetted us down and ruined yet another expensive camera.
The walk up the San Gabriel River was marked graphically in the asphalt. I had been expecting a wash, but this was a true river that you could kayak up on the tide if the notion possessed you. Gardens backed up to the edge of the San Gabriel River Bike Trail. You could see what people were growing in their gardens and smell their Sunday dinners of steak or smoked salmon.
Soon the backyards disappeared and an oil field encroached. Grasshopper pumps sucked what little was left of Seal Beach’s petroleum reserves. I stopped to talk with some fishermen who were gathered at the head of a slough just above Pacific Coast Highway. They baited their hooks with mussels, hoping to catch halibut. I couldn’t figure out where the waters of this side channel came from — it ended in less than a third of a mile — or where they joined with the river. The main stream did not narrow after this hidden junction, but carried the brackish scent of the sea well past the PCH bridge where fishermen sat with the homeless waiting for a bite. The latter brought their sleeping bags for a little cuddle with their friends. I asked one fellow what he was fishing for and he said he was just eating his dinner. There was panic in his voice. I let the poor man be.
Other homeless people made beds in the rocks on the riverbank by padding likely depressions with soft trash and old clothes. They left their sleeping bags. I confess to little nervousness at seeing three teenagers riding by. I never trusted teenagers when I was one. Would they throw the shoddy beddings into the river?
The river bent, went under Westminister Boulevard, and chased the banks by the three huge generators of the Department of Water and Power. Three sets of stairs led down to three outflows: The first showed little action, the second churned vigorously, and the last was completely quiet. We stood the longest on the middle platform because it was here that our guidebook — Karin Klein’s Explorer’s Guide 50 Hikes in Orange County — prophesied that we would be most likely to see turtles.
Lynn thought she saw a couple of fins and a head. I was not sure what I saw. The foam and the shadows of the waves created enough enough interference to deepen the mystery. Mullet jumped from the deep waters — perhaps chased by a predator or perhaps trying to suck some air into their overheated gills. Passing bikers knew nothing of the turtles. “Where did you hear about this,” Lynn asked after we watched for a while. Fear that there was some elaborate joke in play troubled me little. I had read the book, checked the web. Bikers zoomed by never realizing the nature near at hand. I doubted they noticed the weeds much less a surfacing honu.
I counted my uncertainties and took them home with a list of birds that we had seen and another of invasive plants. But no clear images of the green sea turtles of the San Gabriel River.
- San Gabriel River Sea Turtle Monitoring Project
- Improbable Residents: The Sea Turtles of the San Gabriel River
DIRECTIONS: From the 405, take the Seal Beach Boulevard exit and head south until you come to Pacific Coast Highway. Turn right and go a few blocks to First Street. Fifth Street which comes first can also be used. Turn left and then turn right on Marina Drive. Follow Marina Drive to the Los Alamitos Marina. Find a parking space in the lot (don’t park in the boat owners’ slots), gather your gear and backtrack across the bridge to the trail. You can go straight to the turtles by heading north or begin with a sentimental journey to the sea as we did by going south.