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.
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.
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.
A brown pelican joins the flock on a rock along the Pacific coast of California
This photograph has appeared here at my website and in subsequent social media posts already, but merely as an example in a post I shared about some slightly technical matters related to a camera I use. (More on that in a moment.) Since I feel like the photograph stands not only as an example of how a lens and a camera work, but also as a photograph, this time I’m sharing it for the latter reason. We had spent a couple of days in the Monterey and Big Sur area, photographing along that spectacular coastline, and now we were headed home. We decided to work our say north along the coast, eventually turning inland just south of San Francisco.
Just before that homeward turn we passed a small, rocky island just a few yards off the actual coast, and I realized that it was covered with many scores of brown pelicans. I love photographing these birds, and it is somewhat unusual to see so many in one place, so we stopped and walked out to the bluff to make some photographs. The light was challenging since it was coming from almost directly behind the birds — but in this case that worked well as there is a light fringe around the bird, some light comes through its wing feathers, and additional light reflects back up from surf and rocks as this pelican lands. Oh, and that technical article? I made this photograph with a pretty unusual “birding” setup — the 50.6MP Canon EOS 5Ds R with a 100-400mm zoom lens with a 1.4x teleconverter attached!