MARINA DEL REY -Ron Charbonneau knows a lot about marine life. He knows about the California sea lions sprawled out on the docks of Marina Del Rey and points out the sagittal crests on their skulls which show their exceptional jaw power. He knows about the cormorants with their serpentine necks and ability to dive hundreds of feet down. He knows about the intertidal colony of seals with their small pectoral fins that aren’t very mobile on land, so they wait for a swell to help wash them off of rocks they’re sunning on.
After all, it’s part of his job as a volunteer naturalist aboard the Sea Trek, which runs daily from Marina Del Rey’s Dock 52.
“I provide running commentary,” Charbonneau said, “so things of interest and a little bit of background things that people might see. I’m very passionate about being out on the water and sharing what I’ve learned along the way about the different marine animals that we might encounter.”
Charbonneau has been a volunteer whale-watcher for more than 20 years. Although he doesn’t have any formal training, whales have been a part of his life since his childhood on the east coast.
“I grew up in Massachusetts, which has a long history of whaling with Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, New Bedford. You kind of grow up with all of that colonial history of the whaling industry.”
How the 73-year-old Charbonneau ended up in Venice is as far-reaching a journey as the migratory ones his beloved marine mammals undertake.
It began when a motorcycle accident in his teenage years led to several back surgeries.
“My orthopedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital advised me that I’d be better off in the southwest or California instead of in the cold, wet winters in New England,” Charbonneau recalled. “I said okay, sounds like a deal. I’ll just pack a bag and head out.”
Through a rideshare board in Harvard Yard, he joined up with a group driving a van to Berkeley. After eventually ending up in L.A., he returned to Massachusetts for a few years, working at the Worcester State Hospital Medical Library. He returned to California to help a friend move to Van Nuys. When their International Harvester truck suffered a bad blowout in Arizona, they stayed with a turquoise dealer and his rifle-toting Navajo wife for a few days until the truck was repaired.
He stayed in L.A. for good this time, landing an apartment in what is now the Venice V Hotel over 40 years ago. He met his wife, Pamela London, and continued working in libraries before working at the House Ear Institute and a private ear specialist practice.
“I kind of got into that when they were developing the cochlear implants,” Charbonneau said, adding that his scientific background studying at the Wooster Polytechnic Institute meshed with medical research. “That was fun.”
Still, the water beckoned. Pamela saw an advertisement in the late 90s about a whale watching naturalist program in San Pedro at Cabrillo Marina run by the county recreation and parks department. The open program offered classes at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, which Charbonneau attended, along with seeing guest lecturers at the nearby American Cetacean Society headquarters.
“I’ve picked up a lot of information just being on the boats with boat captains, as most of these guys are pretty knowledgeable. Some of them are old sea salts. So that’s basically where I picked up my knowledge of whales and cetaceans.”
After taking a qualifying exam on marine mammals, Charbonneau began working as a volunteer naturalist on different whale-watching boats. Starting in Redondo Beach, he worked his way closer to home in Marina Del Rey when it got its first whale-watching boat, the Matt Walsh in 2013. After that boat was sold and converted to a fishing vessel, Captain Mike Sauchelli refurbished an old boat for whale-watching and christened it the Sea Trek.
Sauchelli knew Charbonneau from previous trips on the Matt Walsh and they’d stayed in touch.
“Ron was an easy thought to add on the Sea Trek,” Sauchelli said. “He brings a lot of value to the boat. We’re happy to have him. He’s more than just a naturalist on board. He’s our friend.”
Charbonneau said a typical boat ride—“a three-hour tour, evocative of Gilligan’s Island”— works its way out to deeper water and two submarine canyons in the Santa Monica Bay and Redondo.
“Most of the bay is gently shelfing coastal plain, but in those areas, the bottom drops out to well over 1000 feet. And wherever there’s a marked difference in depth that creates an upwelling of nutrients, that triggers off the food chain, which increases our probability of encountering a larger cetacean.”
The Sea Trek typically sees a lot of common dolphins and sometimes coastal bottlenose dolphins, along with various whales.
“Over the past few years, we’ve had some spectacular humpback whale sightings here,” Charbonneau said. “We have had blue whales in Santa Monica Bay before. They’re almost 90 to 100 feet long. It’s really spectacular and breathtaking, the sheer size of them.”
The Sea Trek has also seen fin whales, which can grow to 70-80 feet long. Charbonneau keeps track of sightings of a particular female, Fluky, on his Facebook page.
On the smaller end of the whale scale, minke whales can be spotted as well. “It’s kind of like a dolphin on steroids. It’s a very erratic, fast-moving whale. So sometimes you’ll see it once and it’s gone. Other times it’ll be curious and kind of swim right by the boat.”
Aside from all these cetaceans, the Sea Trek sees mola molas, a Pacific sunfish. “It’s the world’s largest bony fish. It sometimes lies flat on the surface and then has a square appearance. It doesn’t really have a caudal or tail fin. When you see it, it kind of looks like a floating trash bag.”
Still, every trip can be a bit different with the unpredictable aquatic setting.
“The ocean is a very dynamic environment and it’s constantly changing,” Charbonneau said. “You never know what to expect.”
Charbonneau told the dozen or so passengers the same thing as the Sea Trek launched on a recent Friday cruise.
“As we venture out into the deep blue sea, we can expect the unexpected,” said Charbonneau, clad in a tie-dye shirt depicting marine mammals and his longish hair in pigtails, his voice projected through a microphone.
As the boat slowly exited Marina Del Rey for the open ocean, Charbonneau told passengers to look for birds on the surface, which could indicate dolphins nearby driving baitfish upward. Whitewater surface breaks and mist could also indicate whales. Using the 56-foot Sea Trek for comparison, Charbonneau said a humpback is 55 feet, fin whales 70-80 and blue whales, the largest, are 90-100 feet. “Let’s cross our fingers for an awesome encounter.”
After chugging on the open sea a bit, the Sea Trek reached a submarine canyon, where the bottom drops to 1000 feet, expanding the range of the food chain, which offers an “irresistible buffet” for cetaceans, Charbonneau said.
Sure enough, a pod of common dolphins broke the surface. Charbonneau noted their gray “racing stripes” on the side and how the “calves, sisters, aunts and grandmas” swam together in the middle while “rowdy bachelor pods” raced along the outside, playfully diving near the boat.
After the pod disappeared under the glassy depths, Charbonneau pointed out some oystercatchers, “a goofy-looking” black bird with an orange bill that often flies in pairs.
Charbonneau exited the wheelhouse and stood on deck, scanning the water through his binoculars. For a stretch, there was no marine life, which happens from time to time, Charbonneau said.
“The ocean is a desert with its life underground,” he said, quoting the America song, “Horse With No Name.”
During the lulls, Charbonneau shared cool facts: Pacific gray whales, during their coastal migration, will often swim just beyond the surf break so the crashing waves mask the sound of their breathing from killer whales which may be hunting them.
He eventually spotted another megapod of common dolphins in the distance. The Sea Trek tried to follow them, but they were too fast, and the pod diffused before the passengers could see them together. The Sea Trek turned around and headed for port.
Still, every day’s a good day on the water for Charbonneau.
“It’s just become a passion,” he said. “It’s been awe-inspiring, really, to have encounters with large mammals on their terms.”