Sunday, January 20, 2013

Northern California Perfection

We took advantage of a supremely beautiful winter weekend to escape to Big Sur for 48 hours.

Friday afternoon we drove down to Carmel, and treated ourselves to a nice dinner at Bistro Giovanni, where the people were very pleasant.

Saturday morning we grabbed some coffee and headed south to Point Lobos State Reserve. Arriving there shortly before 10 AM, I noticed that the entrance gate was already busy and the first parking lot was already full.

It turned out that we had had the extreme good luck to arrive at the reserve on a very special day: Underwater Parks Day at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

Filmmakers, photographers and explorers who have studied marine sanctuaries all over the world converged at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve on Saturday for Underwater Parks Day, an event to honor the implementation of a statewide network of marine protected areas and to raise ecological awareness.

We left the car at the Sea Lion Point trailhead, and hiked through the Allan Grove of Monterey Cypress, then along the North Shore Trail back to Whalers Cove, stopping frequently along the way for pictures and binocular gazing.

We reached the cove around 11:30, just in time to spend 45 minutes talking to the divers from the diving club who were exhibiting a fantastic array of animals they had found while diving in the cove. Normally, the divers in the reserve are allowed only to "look but not touch", but today only they were permitted to bring animals up to the surface for us all to see. (After the 90 minute viewing period, the animals were returned to their habitat by the divers.)

There were stars, crabs, nudibranchs, limpets, sea cucumbers, and many other creatures, attentively watched over by the divers and entertaining a steady supply of children of all ages (including us).

At the Whalers Cabin, the docents had set up a powerful telescope, trained precisely on one of the Southern Sea Otters basking in the sun. After admiring the otter from afar, we hopped aboard the park shuttle and rode back to our car.

We walked out Sea Lion Point Trail to Punta de los Lobos Marinos, where indeed several hundred of the well-known "Sea Wolves" for which the reserve is named were at their favorite perch on Sea Lion Rocks.

As we watched the Sea Lions cavorting and listened to them barking, we began to spot puffs of spray farther out to sea. First one, then another, and sometimes two or three at a time. Without really planning to do so, we had the tremendous good fortune to have arrived at the peak of the Gray Whale migration

Each year approximately 15,000 of an estimated total population of 17,500 gray whales swim south from Arctic feeding grounds, en route to their Baja California breeding and calving grounds.

From December through May, gray whales can be observed a few miles off California's shore.

At Point Lobos, the greatest numbers of migrating whales are usually seen in mid-January, so our timing was perfect!

As we grew accustomed to spotting the whale spouts on the horizon, we saw more and more of them; during the next twenty minutes, as we patiently waited and watched, we saw perhaps 35 spouts, as well as 5 flukes. As the Point Lobos docent guide notes

They usually blow 3 to 5 times in 15 to 30 second intervals before raising their tails (flukes) for a deep dive. A gray whale can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes and can swim 3 to 6 miles per hour.
As the day was crystal clear and the temperature was in the low 70's, we were as content as could be, but by now we were hungry, so we drove all the way down to the end of the road at the Bird Island trail head, where we parked again and had our lunch.

After a good lunch and a nice rest, we walked out the Bird Island trail where we spotted more otters, more whale spouts, and a nesting pair of Pelagic Cormorants, perched in a cliff niche some 150 feet above the crashing waves.

Sunday morning, before we hit the road home, we decided to take another hike, this time at Monterey County's Jacks Peak County Park.

This little-known park is named for David Jack, a Scottish immigrant who was an early cattle rancher in Monterey County. David Jack is much better known for the cheese he invented: "Monterey Jack Cheese".

Jacks Peak is the highest point on the Monterey Peninsula, just over 1,000 feet high. But the best part of the park is that the entrance road climbs nearly to the top; the trail head parking lot is at 925 feet. So, once you have paid your fee and parked, you have a short 0.75 mile walk and a 100 foot ascent to get to the peak with its stunning views of Monterey Bay, the cities of Monterey and Carmel, and the beautiful Carmel Valley and Carmel River.

Then it was time to get home; we had chores to do and a dog to feed. So we saddled back up and returned home.

Carmel and Big Sur was a wonderful weekend holiday; I am sure we will do that again before long.

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