This week we all stole away from drudgery, meetings and work, to view a spectacle of nature. A pod of humpback whales came to our port and were jumping, eating and frolicking in the water just off the pier at Avila Beach. They were following a bait ball. A bait ball occurs when small fish swarm in a tightly packed spherical formation about a common center. It is a last-ditch defensive measure adopted by small schooling fish when predators threaten them. The predators in the water at Avila included harbor seals, sea lions, dolphins, pelicans and those magnificent whales. We watched as the whales breached at least 30 times, showing their majesty so close, everyone was awed as this was a sight few ever witness. After 2 hours of watching the sea churn with life, we moved over to the beach for a bonfire and banquet.
The baker brought bread, the winemaker shared her favorite vintages, and the farmers picked fresh delicacies from their bounty. I brought the seafood. When I’m in Avila and want to impress with the freshest seafood, I turn to BJ’s Fresh Fish Market. Looking more like an aquarium than a market, as most their inventory is still swimming, every visit is a pleasure here on Avila’s Hartford Pier. I always first try with a fishing line in the water, but in 14 years, I have never caught a fish. I caught an octopus once, but he crawled around in my hand and then squirted away. When it is time to fire up the bonfire sea feast, I tendered over to BJ’s to buy the live fish of the day.
BJ’s has been a staple on the pier for over 30 years. Being a true family run business, his children (now young adults and teenagers) learned to walk on the rickety pier. BJ’s and his wife usually have over 20 different varieties of fish to choose for your festivity. You can pick out a live fish, have them filet it and have sashimi the likes of which you can never compare. Huge busloads of smart Japanese tourist do this daily and I learned to have soy and ginger in my pockets to share in this classic occurrence.
This time I picked out four dozen live oysters. To prepare, I have Gary shuck them, rinse in Tobin James Dreamweaver, then add fresh lime juice, horseradish and a dash of Tabasco or a mignonette sauce consisting of raspberry and balsamic vinegar with a touch of red onions. It is my favorite treat and I alone can eat a dozen in one seating. We also purchased some huge California King Crab to boil over the fire in seawater filled pot. This sea arachnid is a rare treat, but the shells are made of titanium, so hacksaws are needed to get at the delectable meat. It is worth the effort and no lemon or butter was needed. We bought a live 7-pound halibut, wrapped it in butter and herbs, made a cocoon out of foil and sat it on the fire. We ended the meal with thinly sliced Ahi with a ponzo sauce, wasabi and ginger. Poseidon’s celebration was prevailing as the pelicans dived bombed, dolphins leaped and the whales moved over in front of our beach.
Sitting around the bonfire and tasting vintage wines, our new friends were officially in love with beach living as we watched the humpback whales breech into the sunset.
BJ’s market in on Pier Three (Hartford) in Avila Beach about half way down the pier. They are open from 9am to 6pm every day but Sunday, where they close at 5:30pm and the live fish changes daily. It is worth the trip to see crabs trying to escape from the tank or what a live halibut looks like.