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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Elephants on the Beach: Point Reyes National Seashore

We took our annual trip to Point Reyes National Seashore last weekend. It was the 26th anniversary of our first date and the plan was to visit the lighthouse and watch for whales off the point. However, when we arrived at the visitor's center to buy shuttle tickets, we were disappointed to hear the bus service was interrupted indefinitely.

Dairy farms are still run in Point Reyes National Seashore. (Looking west towards the point from Drake's Bay Road)

Sonoma and Marin counties are blessed with beautiful weather, rolling hills, and hundreds of miles of backroads to explore. The people who live and work here have known this all along, of course, but more recently it's been "discovered" by cyclists, both as a training ground for racing (Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer among others have trained here) and for the colorful weekend lycra-cyclists. In the last few years it's gotten a bit frustrating to drive to the coast; contingents of neon-clad "roadies" ride in tightly packed groups, clogging the narrow roads like plaque in Morgan Spurlock's arteries after filming Supersize Me.

(Necessary Disclaimer Because I Know I'll Hear About It Otherwise: I am all for cycling. I commute to work on my bike about 6 months of the year, and I completely understand how terrifying it can be sharing the road with motorists who often seem more concerned with checking their phones than steering. I try to be a considerate driver; if it's not safe to pass, I won't. But a little effort has to be made on the cyclist's part as well; finally approaching a wide spot in the road just to have the cyclist group in front of you spread out and block the lane is maddening at best, road rage inducing at worst.)

Anyway, this year was no different, tons of cyclists not all of them polite. And it turns out they were (sort of) the reason the shuttle buses weren't running: one of the buses, in an effort to avoid some cyclists, veered too far over and ran off the road. It must have been in a bad spot, because it not only disabled that bus, but it blocked the road so the others couldn't make it through either. Point Reyes is a pretty remote park to begin with and the spot where the bus got stuck is an extra 18 miles or so down a very narrow road. It was going to be a while until a tow truck capable of pulling a full size bus out of the mud could get out there.

Shut out on a very windy day. I was disappointed, but happy not to be doing the backstroke with the whales.
We've been shut out before: one year the wind was so strong they closed the stairs to the lighthouse. Point Reyes is the western-most point in the contiguous US, and it sticks so far out into the Pacific there's nothing to dampen the wind as it screams down the coast. The Park Service closes the stairs when the winds exceed 40 miles an hour, not wanting to have to send the Coast Guard after all the tourists blown out to sea.

The view south from the lighthouse.
The view from the lighthouse looking north.
(If you can get there.)
As it turned out, it was a minor disappointment. The shuttle bus station is located at Drake's Bay, a protected inlet that is named for that inveterate explorer/slave trader/plunderer Sir Francis Drake. Large cliffs protect the bay from the wind, and the southern facing beach makes the most of the sun (when it's out.) The day we were there happened to be one of those weirdly warm winter ones--73 degrees--and almost no wind. We grabbed our cameras, picnic lunch and a blanket and took off down the sand.

Drake's Beach at low tide

For years now, elephant seals have been making a comeback to the California coast. They were hunted for their blubber to near extinction in the 19th century, but since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was put in place in 1972, they have been making up for lost time. Drake's Beach is a popular haul out spot for them, with colonies of females and pups gathering at the far western end of the beach guarded by their alpha males. The bachelor males have to find their own spot in the sand, and often bask in the sun off to the edges of the colony. Every year, these lone males spread farther east, often ending up on the beach alongside the human visitors. It's smart to give these guys a wide berth; they are not only a protected species, but if they feel you are infringing on their territory they just might insist you leave the area. A full grown male can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, not somebody you'd want to challenge to a wrestling match.

These guys know how to relax.

They don't make avoidance easy either; since they have so much blubber to keep them warm in the cold water, they get overheated when they lay in the sun. When that happens, they flip sand on their backs, making them look for all the world like a large piece of driftwood that's rolled up with the surf. So when they aren't moving it's easy to walk right up to them unaware. Here's a shot of one blending in with the flotsam and jetsam:

Where's Waldo?

We picked our way through the field of eligible bachelors and found an empty spot of sand for our blanket. From there we were able to observe our slumbering neighbors and keep an eye out for any newcomers in the surf.

Snoozing tidal-pool side.

After a while we heard a ruckus going on down the beach; a large male was in the surf calling out to another male that was sleeping on the beach. At first, the beached male ignored him. But Mr. Surf insisted on challenging, so after about ten minutes of his caterwauling the big guy on the beach decided he'd had enough. He got up, and with surprising speed, ran down the beach and smashed into his challenger. They kept at it, the larger one backing his opponent into the surf, where they continued to fight in the waves.
Looking for a spot to pull over.

We were so engrossed in the spectacle we didn't get any pictures, but the loser ended up swimming towards us, crawling out of the waves to rest. Here he is, a little worse for wear:

Notice the scars, along with the bloody gash on his neck.
These guys have to do battle in order to gain their own harem; I think this one might be better off staying a bachelor.

I can see why the Park Service really doesn't want the public to mix it up with these guys. I don't think they'd attack a person unprovoked, but if someone were stupid enough to approach a male on the warpath...well I wouldn't want to see what was left of him afterward.

After that excitement things seemed to settle down. We lounged in the sand a bit ourselves, then tortured a few sand fleas, a time honored tradition from our grade school days.

Emerita (aka Sand Flea)

Sand flea is just our name for them: they are actually a type of crustacean that live in the sand along the tidal zone. They prefer to be buried in the sand, but our third grade alter egos like to dig them up and watch them bury themselves again. I'm sure we pissed a few off in the process, but fortunately we are much bigger than they are, and they don't have much going for them in the defense department.

...and back down he went, grumbling the whole way I'm sure.
We packed up and left when the tide started to come in. The western side of Drake's beach isn't very wide at high tide; if we waited too long we'd be wading too long, if you get my drift. As we approached the parking lot a docent informed us they had finally cleared the road and the buses were running again. We thought about it for a minute then decided we were happy. We got to see a fight, torture a few small crustaceans and catch some rays with elephant seals in the warm January sun. How could it possibly get any better?
Yeah, you said it buddy.