Waiter and naturalist, Tony Lorenz brings his expertise on marine life to the table. | 831 (Tales from the area code)

“There is one!”

Tony Lorenz’s eyes widen as he points to a distant ripple in a constantly boiling ocean. It focuses on a whale that momentarily dug through the waters and disappeared. The sighting is so brief that only a trained and watchful eye would notice it. I look up and there is nothing but the open sea.

Fortunately, Lorenz is a marine naturalist who has observed whales, dolphins and other sea creatures for over 26 years from his perch in the Carmel Highlands. He’s an encyclopedia of marine life, able to reel off population numbers over the years as species recover from near extinction, describe differences in spouting patterns of blue or gray whales or any other whale, discuss feeding habits and chart migration routes.

A morning with him is like a graduation seminar, only more entertaining. The Pacific stretches out before you. The kitchen is busy preparing your order. There is coffee or cocktails on call. And somewhere out there is a whale that remains a ghost to me.

“This place is one of the best places on the west coast to see gray whales,” Lorenz assures me, adding that during their epic migration from the Arctic to the breeding and calving waters off Baja and back, he can expect to see up to 200 a day. When the weather and sea are favorable, he calls for sightings on commercial whale-watching boats in Monterey that otherwise wouldn’t venture beyond the friendlier confines of the bay.

But his role is unofficial – a hobby often enjoyed indoors as he takes orders and delivers plates. Lorenz served tables at Pacific’s Edge in the Hyatt Carmel Highlands — his day job — for that same 26-year span. As I sit at a table overlooking the water, he cares as much about warming my coffee as he does spotting whales. Yet his gaze will always return to the sea.

When Aaron Dominguez took over as restaurant manager, he was intrigued by the server’s behavior.

“I said ‘why is this waiter looking out the window?’ “, he recalls. Today, Dominguez considers whale watching and knowledge of Lorenz’s depths to be assets that enhance the dining experience. Pacific’s Edge offers panoramic ocean views and provides binoculars. “I thought I was coming to focus on food,” adds Dominguez. “It’s so much more. Tony is one of my most requested servers.

“People jump out of their chairs, it can be disturbing.”

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“Here he is,” Lorenz said, again pointing to the same area, where the waters turn dark and deep. Again, I’m watching a fraction too late. Spotting whales from a restaurant takes patience and timing. When the guests – with the help of Lorenz – see one of the massive creatures, the reaction is most often a combination of disbelief and elation. Some let out an unexpected tone of excitement.

“People jump out of their chairs,” Lorenz says. “It can be disruptive.”

He studied marine biology at UC Santa Cruz. He first became interested in the subject after seeing the film Jaws.

Landing at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands was a matter of luck. He needed a job when he moved to Monterey County, and the restaurant had an opening. Considering the location, it didn’t take him long to make a career in hospitality.

Getting good at the service industry is perhaps more demanding than studying sea life, at least from Lorenz’s perspective. Although it may take some time to catalog in one’s mind the 180 species of sea and coastal birds that inhabit the region, the service involves a kind of improvisational theater that can be fast-paced and unpredictable. Servers must also acquire the ability to read the mood of a table.

“Most are non-verbal,” he says. “It becomes second nature.”

His understanding of the natural world is a plus. It often happens that diners are inspired to take a whale watching excursion. Lorenz is happy to find a place for them on one of the boats.

“What we are used to doing is serving,” observes Dominguez. “Tony creates an experience.”

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