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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Living very close to the Pacific coast of California for nearly my entire life, the ocean has always “been there” — just on the other side of coastal mountains, hardly more than a half hour away, bringing cooling evening breezes on hot summer days, and producing periodic morning fog where I live. On one hand I am more familiar with this landscape than most people, but in recent years I began to feel that I know much less about it than I should. These photographs made with the camera pointing straight out to see are something of a them of mine, not as frequent as photographs of mountains perhaps, but important nonetheless. They might include fog or winter swell or clearing storm clouds or simply the brilliant light on the water from the western sun. To me they are all a bit mysterious.
We had spent a couple of days along the Big Sur coast photographing (and eating!). The main part of the visit was over, but we had a full day to get home, and home was only about an hour and a half away. So we took our time and followed the coast almost all the way north to San Francisco before turning inland. During much of the drive we were in the sun, but north of Santa Cruz the fog began to appear, and eventually we arrived at that point where the offshore fog bank was substantial enough to form a virtual wall against the light. We stopped and I photographed as the eastern edge of the fog picked up a bit of light and the sun broke through a few clearings to illuminate the surface of the water.
Monsoonal clouds above the Pacific Ocean, Big Sur coast, California
Driving along the central California Big Sur coastline in mid-July we experienced a very unusual coastal summer day. Summers in this area typically feature morning and evening fog and relatively cool temperatures, interspersed with clearer days when the temperatures might rise to near 70 degrees. But for a few days this July, California was affected in an unusual way by a dissipating tropical storm and the early phase of El Niño, and we had unusual manifestations of light and atmosphere and more. There were thunderstorms, some of them quite heavy. The ocean was smoother than usual and the swell came from the south rather than the north. Layers of unusual monsoon clouds filled the sky.
This photograph belongs to what I categorize as both minimalist and imaginary landscapes. I wrote more about this in my previous post, so I’ll keep it short here. The idea is to work with simple materials and often not with an obvious central subject, to focus on some kind of subjective reality rather than creating the illusion of objective depiction.