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Thursday, August 28, 2014

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Walk on the wild side of L.A.

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Young Sarah Aginsky explores tidal pools with James Felgar. [L. Kramer photo]

“I love L.A.,” sighs my nine-year-old daughter Sarah blissfully as she gazes out over the ocean. She’s an hour from Disneyland and hasn’t set foot on a single roller-coaster since we arrived, nor has she even seen the famous Hollywood sign on the hillside.

The Los Angeles she’s fallen for is the one she’s seen from Terranea Resort, a sprawling, 102-acre property in Rancho Palos Verdes, located on steep bluffs overlooking the Pacific.

Just 35 minutes from Los Angeles International Airport, we couldn’t be further from the typical L.A. experience most kids dream about. Though these craggy bluffs used to be home to Marineland of the Pacific, where visitors flocked to see live sea-mammal shows and oceanarium exhibits, all that is long gone. Today, there are no theme parks for miles, and most of the attractions are of the natural variety. Luckily, Terranea has developed an innovative activities program to showcase the area’s beauty and in the process, reveal a very different expression of L.A.

On our first day we walked along the cliffs in the company of falcons and hawks, watching as they soared and dipped on the updrafts before returning to the gloved hand of falconer Joe Roy III, a hunter, educator, author and environmentalist. Removing a medieval-like hood from his raptors’ faces, Roy introduced us to Omen, his 14-year-old peregrine falcon and Huck, his gyr falcon. “The raptor population around Southern California is starting to recover,” he told us, explaining how exposure to the pesticide DDT caused a massive decline in raptors, pelicans and many other species of birds until fairly recently.

When he’s not educating guests about hawk, falcon and owl behaviour, Roy and other falconers with Aerial Solutions help control the seagull population in and around Terranea.

“When the resort was built, there were more than 2,000 seagulls hovering around, pooping in the pools and creating a health hazard,” he says. “Having predators like falcons and hawks in the vicinity helps keep the gulls away.”

The pelicans are back in large numbers, and watching them soar in unison above the water is a magnificent sight. But true to Roy’s word, the gulls are almost an anomaly.

We watch Roy’s Harris Hawk, Alocka, as she swoops low, returning for a nibble on some wild rabbit when he whistles for her. “These birds are so much like us,” he says earnestly. “They’re fierce providers for their young, dedicated parents and lifelong monogamous partners. Watch them carefully and you start seeing their dramas unfold, and how their lives can turn on a dime with a single injury.”

Later that day we take a winding path down to the shore, watching the surf pound the rocky jumble of stones that meet the crashing waves. A storm is approaching just as we’re due to head out on the ocean for a “kayorkling” experience, and the water is choppy, its normal opaqueness cloudy on this day.

“Just a few metres from the beach the kelp beds are rich in marine life,” says Kyle Jones, our kayorkle guide. Of the 200-odd species of invertebrates called nudibranchs found in the world, 100 of them can be identified in these waters right off Terranea, he adds. When the ocean is clear, you don’t even need goggles to see below the surface.

As its name implies, kayorkling is a cross between kayaking and snorkelling, with participants stretching their bodies over the back of a kayak and sticking their heads in the water as someone paddles them forward. On a good day you can see octopus, bright orange garabaldi fish, seals and dolphins, and barely get wet in the process. In choppy water, though, it’s harder to stay dry and the visibility below the surface is minimal. 

Back on land we gaze up at the cliffs, a jagged slice through them revealing a fault line. Their tapestry of layered colours describes the tectonic forces that have shaped and formed them over the centuries, long before white-robed guests at Terranea started arriving for spa treatments and gourmet poolside fare. On our last day at the resort we get to inspect those rocks up close as we venture two miles down the road to Sacred Cove, to explore tidal pools with James Felgar, coordinator of the resort’s Pointe Discovery Activity Centre.

Spaniards and Portuguese once hunted whales in these waters 100 years ago, but that bloody chapter is long past. Today, the cove is a protected sanctuary where tidal pools containing starfish, anemones and crab are washed clean with every tide. Felgar points out rock formations that are coloured as if by the hand of a talented artist. He catches schools of sardines in his baseball cap, showing my kid how they wriggle before releasing them back into the water. A few metres away a group of well-fed harbour seals watches us carefully as cormorants dip and dive.     

It’s a far cry from Disneyland, and I can’t help but smile as I see my daughter wide-eyed at the beauty of brown pelicans and the crash of waves deep inside a cliff cave. We’re not exactly roughing it in this 360-room property, but it feels comforting that her impression of L.A. is one of wide, open spaces, fresh ocean breezes and tidal pools flush with aquatic life.

If You Go: Terranea is located 35 minutes from LAX in Rancho Palos Verdes. The resort’s Pointe Discovery Centre offers several programs, including falconry, kayorkle, plein air painting, horseback riding, tidal pool and surfing Info: www.terranea.com or call 866-484-5558.

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