Category Archives: Photographs: Ocean

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur Coast

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur Coast
A spring morning along the upper Big Sur coastline above Bixby Bridge.

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur Coast. Pacific Coast Highway, California. May 1, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A spring morning along the upper Big Sur coastline above Bixby Bridge.

Living in the greater San Francisco Bay Area region, I’m spoiled by the wealth of visual opportunities within a day’s drive. It has been a busy few weeks since I returned from Death Valley near the beginning April, and I was overdue for a day of photography — so I decided to pick a relatively local area and head out. I had two possibilities in mind. The first was Point Reyes, north of San Francisco, and a location I’ve been trying to get my photographic mind around for some years now. The other option was to head south towards the upper section of the Big Sur coastline, perhaps with a stop at an old favorite, Point Lobos.

Initially my plan was, in fact, to start at Point Lobos. However, as I crossed the Carmel River and soon got my first look at the ocean I saw that fog was beginning to form. For me, that is a good sign! I’d much rather photograph in “interesting” conditions than in perfect blue sky weather, and I’ve often found low coastal fog in the morning to produce some stunning lighting. So I bypassed Point Lobos and headed on to the south. This point was my turn-around, on a high bluff looking back up the coast to the north past Bixby Bridge and a series of additional ridges dropping to the Pacific, with that low fog starting to gather further along. Yes, it is a familiar icon… but, yes, it is also quite beautiful.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Big Creek Bridge, Big Sur Coast

Big Creek Bridge, Big Sur Coast
Evening light on the Big Sur Coast and the Big Creek Bridge

Big Creek Bridge, Big Sur Coast. Pacific Coast, California. January 24, 2016. © Copyright 2016 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Evening light on the Big Sur Coast and the Big Creek Bridge

I have to admit that when it comes to available photograph subjects… I am spoiled. I knew I was going to go make photographs today, but when I awoke well before dawn I had not decided for sure where I would go. I considered going north across the Golden Gate to Point Reyes National Seashore, but it sounded like a weak weather system was going to pass through that area late in the day. I thought about heading to the Central Valley where my favorite winter subject, migratory birds, can be found — but I generally prefer to go there when I think there will be at least some fog. So I headed south, beginning my morning with a few hours at the Point Lobos State Reserve and then heading further south down the Big Sur coastline.

When I arrived at Point Lobos the light was interesting and the surf was still huge. Over the next few hours the surf diminished a bit and a thin overcast drifted in overhead and began to thicken. I figured that I might get somewhat clearer light a bit further south, so off I went on the Pacific Coast Highway. On the way south I stopped at this spot and considered it as a possible subject for the sunset hour, and then I continued on down the coast. Later I checked the time, estimated I had enough to make it back to this spot before sunset, and headed back up the road, arriving here perhaps ten minutes before the good light arrived. The bridge, dwarfed by the immense landscape of coastal mountains and ocean, spans the outlet of Big Creek.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Pelican, Reflection

Pelican, Reflection
A pelican skims above the ocean along California’s Central Coast

Pelican, Reflection. Point Lobos State Reserve, California. September 3, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A pelican skims above the ocean along California’s Central Coast

The brown pelicans are almost certainly my favorite California shore birds, and I photograph them often enough that I think I understand some of their habits and know when and where I’m likely to find them. (On the other hand, I have to admit to being completely unaware that we also have white pelicans until just a few years ago!) When I photograph them I often look for several specific kinds of opportunities — their incredibly low flight as they skim in groups right above the way, close passes in front of me as they ride thermals along the top edges of coastal bluffs, and their approach as they pass over peninsulas extending from the shoreline.

Seeing pelicans on this morning was a little bit of a surprise since I had not seen or photographed them much recently. I went to Point Lobos after hearing that humpback whales had been spotted close to shore, so I went right to the top of a high bluff where I could survey a big area of coastal waters. (My “whale hunt” was more than amply rewarded when groups of the whales appeared very close to the shore and engaged in bubble feeding behavior.) I wasn’t looking for pelicans, but when a few passed down below along the water’s surface I tracked them. This one flew over a small area of relatively smooth water, the surface of which reflected the mixed fog and blue sky along with the distorted shape of the bird’s shadow.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Tail of the Humpback

Tail of the Humpback
The tail of a humpback whale is all the remains as it dives beneath the Pacific Ocean

Tail of the Humpback. Monterey Coast, California. September 3, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

The tail of a humpback whale is all the remains as it dives beneath the Pacific Ocean

Back in early September I had a remarkable morning at the Point Lobos State Reserve along the California coast just south of Carmel. This has been a year of unusual weather and unusual ocean conditions, including much warmer than usual waters. Most likely as a result of this, sea life has behaved in unusual ways — for example, certain species that are rare along the coast or that usually stay farther out to sea have shown up right along the coast. That was the case on this morning when huge schools of small fish had apparently appeared very close to the rocks of Point Lobos.

When I went there on this morning I suspected that I might spot some whales, but what I saw exceeded my expectations. I arrived and walked out onto a high bluff that extends a way out from the shoreline, and from here I could immediately see commotion on the surface of the water very close — thousands of birds were obviously feeding on something. Within moments I spotted my first humpback whale and before long many more showed up. Every so often they engaged in spectacular examples of bubble feeding, in which groups of them work together to corral the fish they feed on, at which point the group suddenly breaks the surface all at once, with gaping mouths wide open to catch a meal. This photograph is a bit less spectacular, but it is still a special experience to watch these huge creatures slowly glide below the water’s surface.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Bubble-Feeding Humpback Whales

Bubble-Feeding Humpback Whales
Bubble-feeding humpback whales break the surface at Point Lobos State Reserve, California

Bubble-Feeding Humpback Whales. Point Lobos State Reserve, California. September 3, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Bubble-feeding humpback whales break the surface at Point Lobos State Reserve, California

I had the morning free, so I got up early and did the counter-commute drive down to Point Lobos, where I had heard that whales had been spotted very close to these shoreline during the past week or so. Arriving there I quickly surveyed the water and spotted huge groups of sea birds above slightly turbulent water, a reliable indicator of places where whales might appear. I headed out to a high bluff with a good panoramic view of the area and almost immediately spotted whale spots and soon the whales themselves. As the fish (which might have been anchovies or something similar?) move closer to the shore, the birds followed, and soon whales (and dolphins and seal lions) also appeared.

I’m far from being an expert on marine mammals, but I’m learning! This past year or so has provided some wonderful opportunities. I have long known about gray whale migrations in the area, but I learned that while the grays tend to move past on their way to places north or south, the humpback whales follow the food and will hang out in one place when it is present… as it currently is around here. I’ve also learned about their remarkable group “bubble-feeding” behavior, where they team up and use some remarkable strategies to corral fish. Some of them will apparently surround a school of fish. Then another whale goes beneath the school and emits a tremendously loud sound that sends them upwards. Meanwhile, another whale circles and blows bubbles into the water. The climax is the moment when the whole group may suddenly burst vertically through the surface of the water, full “throats” and mouths extended and full of water and fish.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Land Meets Sea

Land Meets Sea
Steep coastal ridges run down to the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Northern California

Land Meets Sea. Mendocino County, California. July 6, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Steep coastal ridges run down to the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Northern California

Having lived not far from the Pacific Ocean for more than a couple of decades, I am lucky to have regular access to the California coastline and its often dramatic meeting of land and sea. Due to proximity, my home territory is the section between just north of San Francisco and down through the upper portions of the Big Sur coast. The shouldn’t be any surprise, given the number of photographs of that area that I have made.

Oddly, for a near-native Californian, I had little experience with the coastline farther north. I had made it up as far as Fort Ross a few times, but every time I went north in the state I headed inland. Some years back we began to rectify this omission with some visits to the Mendocino area. I still haven’t gotten my mind completely around photographing this particular coast, but I’m learning. While we think of the coast as being somewhat civilized, with roads traversing it and passing from town to town, the actual meeting of land and water remains mostly a rugged wilderness. I made this photograph from a spot that it at the edge of one of these wilderness sections, where the roads cut inland and leave the coast to the birds and the sea life.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Sleeping Elephant Seal

Sleeping Elephant Seal
An elephant seal sleeps among its kin on a California beach

Sleeping Elephant Seal. California Coast. July 20, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

An elephant seal sleeps among its kin on a California beach

Traveling up and down the California coast, it is hard to avoid eventually encountering the elephant seals. Historically they were once very common along this coastline, and their numbers have recovered considerably in recent decades. There are now several places where they are very accessible, and in large numbers — if you ever do the Big Sur Pacific Coast Highway you will certainly encounter at least one such area. In fact, that’s what we were doing on this July trip. We were mainly there to photograph landscapes and seascapes, but that didn’t prevent us from making a photographic detour to photograph these animals.

Here the coast highway comes very close to an elephant seal rookery, and the animals are more accessible than in any other location that I’m aware of. (At others you must walk long distances, and in some places they have hauled up on beaches so isolated that you can only watch from a great distance.) At first I was fascinated by their sparring and other more active things they do. The more I have photographed them, the more I have looked for and sometimes found ways to photograph them even when they are not active — and this specimen, sleeping among others of its herd, is anything but active!


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell and others as indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.