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Monday, January 26, 2015

Fight Club: Elephant Seals at Pt. Reyes National Seashore


We spent Sunday out at Point Reyes National Seashore in honor of the 27th anniversary of our first date. Every year on the third weekend of January, we drive out to Drake's Bay and get onto the shuttle bus that takes visitors out to the lighthouse. From there we make the quarter mile hike to the top of the stairs, take in the glorious view, then tromp down the 308 stairs. We look inside the lighthouse, talk to the ranger stationed there, watch the water for signs of the migrating gray whales, and take pretty much the same photos we take every year.

That's the easy part.
Mark smiles as he waits on the shuttle bus.

After putting it off for as long as possible we make our way back up the stairs. I could lie and tell you it's a piece of cake, but I'd hate to mislead you. I consider myself in fair shape; I can run a few miles (not fast, but still) and I walk at least three miles every day, up and down hills. By the time I hit stair number 150 this year (those sadistic rangers conveniently number them for you) I was out of breath. By the time I got to the top I was covered in sweat and I could clearly hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears. I'm just glad I'm not the only one that has a little trouble with them. On my way down I passed a man going up whose face was beet red just forty stairs from the bottom. I overheard him telling his wife the altitude was getting to him. (Apparently he hails from deep beneath the ocean, as the lighthouse is only about 300 feet above sea level and the stairs climb to 600 feet, not an altitude typically requiring oxygen tanks.)

Lighthouse keeper of old.
No shortage of rusty items on display inside the lighthouse cabin.

The dreaded stair 308.

I like to blame it on the time of year: We always go just a few short weeks after the Holiday Eating Season and all the rich food is probably still hanging out in my arteries somewhere. I'm pretty sure that gravity is a little stronger in January as well. Doesn't gravity have an inverse relationship to the number of daylight hours? If Newton or Einstein didn't come up with an equation for that, they should have.

Anyway, this year was an exceptional year for a lot of reasons: There was a virtual expressway of whales passing by the point, even the ranger was impressed by the numbers (I think he said they had spotted forty the day before and were well on their way to seeing as many that day); the weather couldn't have been nicer, 70 degrees and almost no wind; the lighthouse was very lightly visited compared to years past making viewing easier and more pleasant.

We had our telephoto lens with us but gray whales aren't as showy as their humpback cousins. They don't leap into the air, sing, or flap their tails around. The best shots we got were of whale backs, with a tail and a fluke thrown in. Still, it's always a thrill to see a whale swim by.

Whale backs: the most they were willing to show us.

A whale bids adieu on his way to Mexico.
Ghost Islands: The Farallons lurk beneath the haze created by the inversion layer that's currently parked off the coast, preventing us from getting the rainstorms that are more typical this time of year.
Back at Drake's Bay we pulled our lunch out of the car and walked down the beach. Even on a windy day, Drake's beach is protected by high bluffs so it's a great place to have a picnic. The day was almost hot as we trundled west down the beach toward the elephant seal colony. Every year the bachelor males haul themselves out along the beach. You have to keep a sharp eye out for them; they lay so still they look like large driftwood logs and it would be easy to get too close, something you would regret rather quickly.

We were surprised at how small their teeth are, considering the damage
they inflict when they bite each other's necks.
Snoozing on the sand.
Ah, the life of an elephant seal.

Don't let the "smile" fool you. This guy was agitated and
ready to defend himself.
This one had an itchy chin.
This year was no exception. In fact, it seemed there were a lot more bachelors than usual. Maybe it was the warm weather, or maybe there were just too many per square foot, but we witnessed a lot of battles for territory this year. Seeing these massive creatures body slamming each other in the surf is something we won't soon forget. The strange creaking sound of the winner as he trumpets his victory from the waves is other-worldly. Loud too; I swear one of the big male's caterwauling triggered a small rock slide from the cliffs above the beach.

Enjoy the photos, and if you're anywhere near Point Reyes in the future, be sure to make some time to visit. No matter what time of year, it's always a treat.

The track made by a large male when he dragged himself down the beach. 
Two males face off in the surf.
Fight's over.
The loser swam further down the beach and the winner hauled out and took a nap. It's a scary sight to see these 5000 lb monsters fighting, and we tried our best not to be on the beach when they came ashore still agitated from the fight.
We found this shoe among the driftwood.
Nothing says style like a wooden 3" pump on a remote sandy beach.

If you're interested in visiting the park read more about it here. To read about our visit last year here's the link: Elephants on the Beach

There is a small cafe at Drake's Beach, but it's not always open. If you plan to make a day of it you might consider packing a lunch or picking it up in nearby Inverness. We highly recommend Perry's Deli in Inverness Park: pricey but delicious!