Nestled in the center of busy streets, multi-million dollar homes and shopping malls is a small body of water that is teaming with life: the Newport Back Bay. This estuary was once on the brink of extinction as developers sought to gain access to it. But with the help of several organizations and dedicated individuals, the area was turned into protected land and eventually became what is now an oasis for wildlife and a perfect retreat for nature lovers. Over 90 percent of the estuaries in Southern California have been developed and are no longer safe havens for animals and plants. That makes the Newport Back Bay a rare habitat for a diverse ecosystem that is difficult to find. Over 200 species of birds, mammals, and marine life have made themselves comfortable at the Newport Back Bay Conservancy, where food is plentiful and human interaction is minimal. We spent a good part of Saturday morning touring the wetlands with Betsy and Win, two phenomenal guides who work at the conservancy. After the tour, we drove around the bay and plopped our kayaks in the water for a closer look at the birds, sea lions and other creatures that inhabit the bay. We were not disappointed.
Our day started at the Newport Back Bay Science Center, where our tour was scheduled to begin. Built in 2008, the center was designed to bring the Newport Back Bay Conservancy, researchers, students, community members, and travelers together to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the local wildlife. As a collaborative project between the city of Newport Beach, Orange County, California Fish and Wildlife, and the University of California Irvine, the center offers a variety of inexpensive tours, bird watching programs, kayaking adventures, and interpretive classes for anyone interested.
Our tour was called the Shellmaker Discovery Tour and we were pleasantly surprised by how much we learned and experienced in an hour and a half. The morning was chalk full of interesting facts about the flora and fauna that inhabit estuaries. As we made a circle around the science center, we spotted dozens of birds; learned about the food chain; gently squeezed a sea squirt; looked at shark eggs; and learned how to properly catch mud. All marine life that took up residence in the display tanks would soon be released back into the bay. New critters are gently caught, studied for a few days to make sure they are healthy, and released. Studying marine life up close helps researchers gauge how healthy the bay is and if there is anything that can be done to increase diversity and overall well-being.
The Shellmaker Discovery Tour was a great way to learn about the area, get our hands dirty and be a part of something important. The tour was free and the only thing we had to do was register online a few days ahead of time. While the science center is geared more for older audiences and high school science classes, the Muth Interpretive Center on the northern side of the bay is a perfect retreat for any age group. With a beautiful location overlooking the bay, interactive games and learning centers, documentaries shown in a private theater, and engaging walking tours, this center will keep everyone occupied and interested for hours, and everything is free.
If you are craving something a little more adventurous, check out the kayaking tours at the Newport Aquatic Center. Here, you can learn all about the wildlife while paddling around the bay or you can rent your own kayak and explore it on your own, just be sure not to go beyond the marked boundaries and into the reserve. Single kayaks are $15 an hour. Tandem kayaks are $20 an hour. We were fortunate enough to have our own kayaks and we launched from the aquatic center at no additional cost (the aquatic center is very relaxed and easy going). Paddling around for a few hours, we saw pelicans, great blue herons, snowy egrets, osprey, sand pipers, ducks, sea lions, and more. We even had the privilege of watching a sea gull catch a fish and gulp it down right in front of us. The water is calm, the workout is great, and the wildlife is spectacular; the perfect outing for a day in Newport Beach.
If you finish exploring the bay and get hungry for a little culture, head over to the Newport Art Museum, where you will see beautiful works of art, learn the juicy details about famous painters, and maybe even have lunch with an artist. This year, the museum will be having a Merry Murder Mystery dinner on December 28th, where guests are welcome to dine at the museum and then help solve a gruesome mystery. Needless to say, spending a day at the Newport Back Bay and the surrounding area makes for an unforgettable experience that benefits everyone and the memories are guaranteed to last. We can attest to that.