Sunday, January 19, 2014

MLK Weekend at Point Lobos

It's time for a short adventure.

In the middle of the worst drought in 50 years, the mid-January weather is clear and in the 70's.

We strike out for Carmel in Friday afternoon traffic, planning to spend all Saturday Pt Lobos State Natural Reserve, where the annual marine biology festival is held over Martin Luther King Jr weekend.

We forget to pack our swim trunks.

And our boots.

And our shorts.

We are out of practice.

Did I mention it's 75 degrees?

Our hotel is functional and clean. We luck into the top floor corner room, which has an extended balcony that wraps around to a secluded area all our own. Nice!

The hotel is the staging area for this weekend's regional Mock Trial competition, so there are dozens of high schools with their teams. In the morning, the Mock Trial participants are all dressed up, looking smart, enjoying the hotel buffet.

After breakfast, we make the short 5 minute drive to Pt Lobos. Arriving at 9:00, we find the refuge is already packed, and are glad we got an early start.

Many years ago, the Tasmanian painter Francis McComas declared that Point Lobos is "the greatest meeting of land and water in the world," and there's no denying the correctness of his assessment.

We park at the Sea Lion Point trailhead, one of our favorites, and spend 45 minutes walking around the point. There are cormorants everywhere, and a few odd black birds with bright red beaks. When the birds settle down to rest, they tuck those long red beaks back up into the shoulder feathers.

(The internet, natch, provides the answer: these are Black Oystercatchers.)

The rocks at Sea Lion Point are as majestic as ever, with crashing surf and pounding waves. You can hear the sea lions before you see them, but once you see them you realize the rocks are carpeted with the giant animals, with dozens more swimming in this water. A docent estimates there are 400 within sight from where we stand.

By 10:15, it's already quite warm, so we shed our fleece pullovers and head out for a longer walk.

We take the beautiful loop trail through the cypress grove, remarking as we walk about how much drier it is than last year. As we round the corner to the rocks of North Point, others on the trail are pointing and talking excitedly.

We get to the point and focus our binoculars. Down in the cove is a churning activity that clarifies with the strong lenses of the binoculars: dolphins! Dozens of them, leaping and diving and swirling around.

And then, within the blur of dolphin fins, the unmistakable broad gray shape, then the spout, and the fluke: whales!

Mesmerized, we spend 20 minutes watching this group of at least 6 gray whales, with dozens of dolphins and other hangers-on, contentedly feeding and exploring and playing, before they proceed back out of the cove and resume swimming south. Their spouts and flukes can be just barely spotted in the distance until they are several miles away.

Back on our feet, we take the North Shore Trail to Whalers Cove. Shortly before we reach the cove, a clear spot on the trail offers a gorgeous view down into the crystal clear waters of the preserve, 75 feet below us.

At first, we think we are watching a plastic grocery bag, floating in the surge, but with the clear view of the binoculars there is no doubt: there is a large whitish-brown jellyfish, floating in the surf. It must be 18-24 inches in diameter. We watch it carefully and marvel: it swells and contracts, floating its tentacles in the current, calm and peaceful in the gentle waters near the kelp.

We reach Whaler's Cove just in time to meet and talk with the divers. One has found a "decorator crab", a rather unusual creature whose shell is covered in grasses and algae.

We retrace our steps back to where we left the car. We stop again at the spot where we saw the jellyfish. This time, at the same location, we are struck by an amusing spectacle: a large log is floating in the cove and 3 or 4 sea lions are climbing up on it, taking the sun, then slipping back into the water with nary a sidelong glance at their companions. At time, the log has several sea lions atop it, but they don't remain perched for long.

It is lunchtime, so we head over to the picnic area at the Bird Island trailhead, perhaps the most scenic picnic area within a 150 mile radius of our home (and in Northern California, that's strong praise!). A shady and quiet table provides the perfect 45 minute break.

Sunday morning, the weather is glorious, so we decide to return to Pt Lobos. We park on Route 1 and take the pedestrian entrance. We follow the Carmelo Meadows Trail and the Moss Cove Trail out to Granite Point.

From the Granite Point overlook, the coves and points and bays spread out below us. The visibility is superb and we spend 45 minutes just watching.

In addition to 6 sea otters, peacefully floating on the large kelp beds of Whaler's Cove, and dozens of sea lions and seals swimming and bobbing in the surf, the most remarkable sight unfolds slightly further away from shore. Leaping and diving and swimming, there are dolphins everywhere! In any direction, once we focus the binoculars, we can see dolphins swimming along. These are big animals, perhaps 10 feet long (probably they are Pacific white-side dolphins), and we can clearly, if faintly, see their fins, bodies, and flukes, as they jump out of the water and dive back in, perhaps 1/4 a mile from shore. Amazing.

Reluctantly, chores await, so we climb back in the car and head home.

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