Eager to spend the afternoon on the water and with the hope of seeing a member of the resident green sea turtle population, 16 members of the American Planning Association (APA) San Diego Section embarked on a first-ever kayaking Eco Tour of South San Diego Bay on October 22, 2017. Led by Ocean Connectors Executive Director Frances Kinney and Harry Orgovan of Chula Vista Kayak, the group toured the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge South San Diego Bay Unit. The group learned about the natural area, saw beautiful wildlife up close, and reflected on the role that planning has on sustaining the natural habitats of San Diego.

The plan to kayak event started at the Chula Vista Boat Launch Ramp at 10 a.m. The group was provided with waterproof binoculars and informational materials on the birds of Southern California coastal bays and estuaries that the group would have the opportunity to see on the tour. After pairing up and launching the kayaks out of the marina, the group navigated the calm waters and traveled south to observe a nesting area for birds.   

San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge:

The San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 2,620 acres of land and water in and around San Diego Bay. The Refuge is broken up into two distinct areas: the Sweetwater Marsh Unit and the South San Diego Bay Unit. The Sweetwater Marsh provides 336 protected habitat acres for endangered and threatened species and over 200 types of birds. The South San Diego Bay Unit is located at the southern end of San Diego Bay bordered by the cities of Coronado, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, National City, and San Diego. The South Bay Unit was dedicated in 1999 to protect threatened and endangered wildlife species and their habitats. The South Bay Unit includes subtidal habitat, salt ponds, and intertidal mudflats that provide a thriving feeding and nesting area for seabirds, fish, and other species.

Tour highlights:

Harry and Frances led the kayaking group and provided an educational narration about the Bay species, habitats, and history of the developments surrounding San Diego Bay through a small amplified speaker. Many species of birds were observed on the tour, including a flock of long-billed curlews, dowitchers, willets, and great egrets, gulls including Heermann’s gulls and Western gulls, birds of prey like osprey, and various other types of waterfowl. While no turtles were spotted on the tour, the group enjoyed viewing a variety of birds, and several bat rays and fish were spotted swimming through the channels of the wildlife preserve.

Special attention was given to the 2013 demolition of the South Bay Power Plant and its impacts on the green sea turtles of San Diego Bay. Up until its closing in February of 2013, the South Bay Power Plant in Chula Vista inadvertently produced a desirable habitat for the sea turtles. The warm water effluent from the power plant discharged into San Diego Bay and created a habitat for the local population of green sea turtles. After the power plants closure and implosion, the sea turtles remained in the bay, but inhabit a larger area and are thus more susceptible to boat strikes.

Though protected from the strong waves and winds of the open ocean, the South San Diego Bay is still vulnerable to human related impacts from climate change, stormwater runoff, and habitat loss. Fascinating information about these impacts was provided as the group toured the bay. There have been countless improvements to water quality and sustainable land use planning around San Diego Bay in recent years. Increased awareness and support will help to preserve the natural areas within San Diego communities and is key to maintaining and enhancing the existing diversity of local habitats and species.

Reflections and thoughts:

The group benefited by gaining greater awareness of environmental protection and ecosystems here in San Diego.   Experiencing the South San Diego Bay in an intimate group setting and within an arms-reach of the habitats and wildlife is an experience that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy. The APA recognizes the value that mindful planning of development near natural areas will help ensure that sensitive habitats are preserved for future generations.  Members of the group also recognize the value of Ocean Connectors and their educational programs for disadvantaged youth.

After paddling back into the marina following the two-hour educational adventure, some members of the group enjoyed lunch at The Waterfront Grill at Pier 32 in National City. Overall, it was an incredible opportunity to embark into San Diego Bay and learn about the natural habitats within our community while supporting an organization that is contributing to the education of younger generations and their understanding of preserving the natural environment. As planners, understanding the areas within the community and planning their land uses with the environment and ecosystem in mind is our duty.

About Ocean Connectors:

Ocean Connectors is a nonprofit program founded in 2007 to educate underserved communities in San Diego County about the environmental issues within the region. Following their vision of Connecting Youth for Conservation, Ocean Connectors has educated and interacted with nearly 20,000 children in the U.S. and Mexico through classroom activities, field trips to coastal areas, bilingual knowledge exchanges, and other programs. Ocean Connectors is able to provide these educational services through partnerships and support generated from the Eco Tour program. For more information about Ocean Connectors please visit www.oceanconnectors.org.


San Diego Bay South San Diego Bay Unit: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/San_Diego_Bay/wildlife_and_habitat/South_San_Diego_Bay_Unit.html

Ocean Connectors: http://oceanconnectors.org/team/

APA San Diego: http://sdapa.org/re-cap-of-imperial-beach-walking-tour-experiencing-ib-by-foot/


Written by:

Michael Fellows, Assistant Planner, City of National City, and APA Membership and Marketing Chair

Monica Fiedler-Ross, Kimley Horn and Associates

Frances Kinney, Executive Director, Ocean Connectors