You gotta be kidding, right? I thought that was your dog.”
This from a silver-haired, dawn crew regular as he paddles up next to me. I don’t know what to say, so I shrug my shoulders, cock my head and turn my hands palms up, body language for “I’m as mystified as you.”
I’m astride an old-school single fin and there’s a sea otter chillin’ between my knees. He’s stretched out lengthwise on his back with his head propped against my thigh, diligently grooming his high-maintenance coat. And he’s been there for 10 minutes. From the outside, I am the embodiment of calm: hands still on my knees, head tilted down in humbled awe, spine straight. I could be meditating. On the inside, I’m churning, all at once thrilled, excited, scared, and at the same time trying to lodge every detail of this encounter into permanent memory.
About seven guys have gathered a respectful distance away, bobbing in the pink slick of this dawn magic, all twittering like birds about the giant furball who’s taken up residence on my board. “So, is this a regular thing with you and this otter?” asks one guy. “I think he likes you ‘cause you’re a girl,” says another. “He looks like he weighs more than you do,” says a third. “It’s definitely a boy,” says someone else.
Otters are not unusual here, but this is definitely not a regular thing. I had just returned to the lineup after catching my first wave of the session when this otter back-paddled by. I said “hey buddy,” and watched in total disbelief as he changed course, swam to the nose of my board, did a little pull-up maneuver, and inch-wormed down the stringer to where I sat. Balancing on his back end, he sniffed my face with his white whiskered one before settling into relax mode on deck.
Under the weight of two, my board sat a little low in the water. A strand of kelp drifted across the deck in the current, and the otter, flipping frontside, began to pat at the moving frond with his perfectly round forepaws. “I think he wants to play,” someone said. I eased into the water, snapped the algae’s shaft to better make use of the “toy,” and wriggled it up and down the centerline of the board. The otter chased it like a cat for a few laps before sliding into the water next to me. His little beady black eyes met my wide-open brown ones for a moment, then he was gone.
Everyone erupted into chatter. We all had these huge grins on our faces, like we’d just caught the wave of the day – only everyone seemed to have forgotten about surfing. I felt ready to burst, I was so high. But what hit me the most was the transformation. In a town with one of the nastiest in-water vibes anywhere, no one could be too cool. For a few minutes, an infectious joy touched everyone. I’m hoping we never forgot it.