Sunday, June 30, 2013

Catching some rays on the bay

Did I mention that it was hot this weekend?

Although it really wasn't that unbearable here at the house, we were still feeling the get-out-and-go-somewhere urge, so we packed a few things and headed for the water.

Specifically, we headed for a favorite spot: Tomales Bay State Park, located off Pierce Point Road adjacent to the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Although we've experienced it numerable times, the temperature gradiant on the Point Reyes peninsula is always startling: it was 102 degrees in Petaluma and Novato, but a mere 15 miles west, it was a delightful 77 degrees.

Although we got a fairly early start, we made a pit stop at the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, and by the time we got to the State Park, the Vista Point parking lot was nearly full! We were, lucky, since once the parking lot fills, Mr. Ranger closes the park gate, and no more visitors may enter.

But we found a spot, and found a table, and spent a delightful hour catching up on the events of the week.

After lunch, we stowed the gear and grabbed our walking shoes and headed off down the Johnstone trail to Pebble Beach.

Now, this is not the Pebble Beach with the $500 green fees, but rather the secluded and spectacularly gorgeous beach just south of the main picnic area. (Sure enough, just as predicted, a family was grilling fresh oysters at the picnic site next to ours during our lunch!)

Aside from a pair of kayakers who'd pulled ashore for a rest, we had Pebble Beach entirely to ourselves for nearly 45 minutes, digging our toes into the sand and looking for That Perfect Shell.

A surprising splash in the water redirected our attention offshore, and we realized that, not 75 feet from the water's edge, a group of 5-10 Bat Rays were feeding in the shallow waters of the cove.

Bat Rays are common across the entire West Coast coastline, and are a well-known inhabitant of Tomales Bay, but we'd never been lucky enough to see them before. It turns out our timing was superb:

In May-July, 2-10 pups are live born after a ten to twelve month gestation period. During mating season, June and July, the rays can be seen in Drakes Estero and near the oyster beds north of Hog Island in Tomales Bay. The rays move into the estero for birthing just as the harbor seals are wrapping up their birthing season.

We weren't anywhere near close enough to be able to see if we were watching adults or juveniles, males or females.

It seems that the best way to watch the rays is from a kayak on the bay:

But then at the eelgrass beds near Walker Creek, we saw some interesting shapes arising in pairs of rounded-off shark fins, and had to investigate. YES! It was Tomales Bay’s own bat rays (Myliobatis californica), feeding in a herd in the eelgrass beds, maybe 20 or 30 strong. Oh joy! Since the tide was way down, and the bay is quite shallow there, the rays’ "wings" emerged from the water as they raised them, and slipped back under as they propelled themselves through their orchard. The wings are actually pectoral fins, and they look like shark fins because rays are reasonably closely related to sharks. They use those fins for self-propulsion, and also to move the sand underneath them and unearth delicious crustaceans. They crush the crustaceans with their plate-like teeth, and spit out the shells.

Apparently the Bat Rays once had a bit of a bad reputation, but their relationship with the human co-inhabitants of Tomales Bay has improved:

Ray predation was once considered a major threat to commercial oyster beds. Growers killed thousands every year in Humboldt Bay alone. "That’s not a problem anymore," says John Finger, whose Hog Island Oyster Farm raises the tasty bivalves in Tomales Bay. "The cultivation technique changed a long time ago. Everything is in floating plastic mesh bags the rays can’t get into." Ironically, larger Humboldt Bay rays are major predators of red rock crabs, which do prey on oysters.

There's much to learn about Bat Rays, but more importantly (to me), they're fascinating to watch.

About a year ago we took a wonderful kayak trip with our granddaughter at Blue Waters in Inverness; as we headed back up the trail from Pebble Beach to return home, we both agreed that we need to do that again, and see if we can't see catch some more rays on the bay, soon.

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