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Elephant Seals - The Lyorn's Den

Sun Oct. 29th, 2006

11:30 pm - Elephant Seals

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Sunday morning I felt a lot better and got up at 9am. The time at which I manage to get up is a good measure of my willpower and emotional energy, because getting up before 1pm is always hard, and in those pre-noon hours nothing in the world seems as important as getting a little more sleep. Making it out of bed at 9, even with the help of just-switched-off daylight saving time [1], means that I'm doing fine.

In my new book I had found a couple of hikes I wanted to do and sorted them by season. The one that came up as "do as soon as possible" involved watching elephant seals at the coast near Santa Cruz. In winter and spring you can hike the area only with a guide (because the elephant seals are mating or caring for their young, and no one wants to have a couple of clueless tourists get in the way of 4000 lbs of blubber and attitude), and I'm not fit enough to keep up with a guided tour. Plus, it's a 90 minute drive, and days are not getting any longer.
So I took off at 10. The drive didn't start out too good. The big East Bay freeways were busy and in bad condition. At least there was no line at the toll booths for the San Mateo bridge, and once I crossed it things became better: Highway 92 winds decoratively through the mountains, with some forest and glittering lakes for diversity. And pumpkin farms. Lots of pumpkin farms. One of which was hosting a Halloween special and caused a twenty minute long traffic jam. I have no idea how -- no car I saw actually went there, but after leaving the place behind, the jam was gone. Maybe too many people were slowing down to look at the pumpkins. And the metal animals, maybe: Large statues of all kinds of animals, cows, horses, deer, elephants, you name it, made in semi-abstract style from rusted sheet metal. I gawked, but as I already was in a traffic jam I do not feel guilty.

Highway 92 wound downhill again and met Highway 1 in Half Moon Bay.

I remember my first day ever of driving on Highway 1. I guess Ceridwen does, too. It was 1993, August, and we were in a rented car, a Chrysler of medium size, My driving experience so far had been limited to really compact cars: VW Polo, Lada, Ford Fiesta, and I'd only driven short distances in familiar and mostly flat countryside. Needless to say, I'd never even seen a car without a stick shift before. Driving this car along a highway in a foreign country, mountains on one side and the sea on the other, and more curves than anything should have a right to was scary, and exhilarating, and generally overwhelming. It took my breath away. I had to stop on a parking space at the side of the road just to take it all in, and calm down enough to continue driving.

Today, it was easy driving in a pretty (well, beautiful) landscape. Yes, I wished I could stop and just take in everything in for hours, but I thought back 13 years and wondered how I could have reacted that strongly. I wondered if I was getting old and jaded, and that depressed me, so I decided that it was partly the lack of adrenaline, because I'm much more confident about driving these days. Another part is that, driving alone, I missed a "sounding board": the simple act of saying "wow, isn't that great?" to someone makes it more so. Or maybe it is because in the car back then we could play music. This one acts as if it has a CD player when in fact it hasn't. And of course it doesn't have a tape deck. It claims that it doesn't even know that these things existed once upon a time.

After a couple of miles I came to Pigeon Point Lighthouse, where we had spent the first night "on the road", wrote loads of postcards (I still haven't found out how much a postcard to Germany is today, what's wrong with me?) and sang into the sunset. It's still a Youth Hostel, and looks just like I remembered. I passed a couple of beaches, and a bright blue diner with a dozen motorbikes in front of it, and finally arrived at the Año Nuevo State Reserve. You need to buy a parking ticket at the entrance, and get a permit at the visitors' center. I'm not entirely sure what's the use of the latter, because it's free, and you do not have to return it (so it can't be to check if someone got lost, or eaten by sharks). OTOH, it's no bother, you just say "I'd like the permit", which is (or contains) a list of things Not To Do and a map, you get it with some short explanations. About two dozen cars were on the parking lot, which was IMO an OK number. Not too much, but not so few that one wonders if the thing is actually closed, abandoned, or taken over by man-eating hippopotami. (I worry about such things. I'm a little panicky about ending up somewhere where I'm not invited. As I've got no problem with garlic, crosses or sunlight, it's probably just me being shy again.)

The area is covered with brush. There was a strong smell of, well, brush in the sun -- I do not know the local plants (which bothers me), and it smelled different then heather, or gorse, or salt marsh, or overgrown North Sea dunes, but the smell had the same warm and lazy undertone. The gravel path was easy to walk, the sky was a perfect blue, and the sea silver, dotted with dark brown rocks and the white of breaking waves. Close by was a green island with some ruins, covered with birds and sea lions. (The island, including the ruins.) Unfortunately, my left contact lens had been getting into an argument with the car's AC and didn't feel especially tolerant of wind, sand, or sunlight. I should have brought a baseball cap. I passed a pond full of pelicans. One of them flapped its wings on the water. It sounded like someone running in heavy shoes.

After a few minutes' walk, the gravel path led along low cliffs of yellow sand, then was covered with silvery wooden planks, and finally became sand all over. Something loomed in front, looking strangely like a long, square tunnel of yellowish plastic. It confused me immensely. As I walked closer, I saw that it was the lee side of a sand dune. The sand dune needed to be climbed, and the sand was just as fine and dry and loose and hard to walk in as was to be expected. (It also didn't agree at all with my bad-tempered contact lens.) On top of it, the wind was strong, which was welcome: though the air was cool, the sun was still strong. The rest of the trail was a sandy gully worn into the greenery-covered dunes, which occasionally opened to show the sea. I could hear sea lions grunt/bark close by. Finally the path rounded a dune and ended at the edge of the low sand cliff. That was the elephant seal watching place. Two park rangers had set up binoculars there, and could tell you about elephant seals. The elephant seals themselves were a good distance away -- you could make out individuals without using the binoculars, but not details. Those were young males, about one to four years old, the park ranger explained. The adult males would arrive later, and be done with their fighting and posturing before the females arrived. Except for a new arrival who crawled out of the sea (elephant seals, like the small seals common in the North Sea, haven't agile back flippers and can't move well on land) and decided on a place to lay down, none of the elephant seals were doing anything but occasionally scratching their noses with a flipper. They had to save energy, I heard, because they wouldn't go out and fish until they were done with mating. Those young elephant seals already had the size of a large sea lion, but lacked yet the bulky noses that grown males have.

Only a few days ago, one of the park rangers said, an elephant seal was attacked by a white shark. There are a lot of white sharks in the water. They especially like young elephant seals, and occasionally eat half a surfer because the silhouette of a surfer lying on his board and paddling looks, from below, exactly like that of a young elephant seal. But the sharks don't really like surfers. Too lean, probably. The elephant seals were as fat as marine mammals should be, round and furry all over. Their fur is actually bristly, and they return in summer to this beach to shed it and re-grow it in the course of four weeks.

Currently, there were only about thirty animals. At the height of the mating season there are thousands, and no, you do not want to get too close to them. Grown elephant seals are not afraid of anything -- not even of white sharks, much less of puny humans.

On the island used to be a lighthouse. This is a dangerous coast, with fog in summer, storms in winter, and lots of rocks. A ship was blown off from a close by port in a winter storm early in the 20th century, and eighty years later they found a scrap of the hull buried under the sand at this place. But the sea lions tried to take over the lighthouse -- sea lions are agile on land, they can easily climb stairs, demolish gardens, and from what I've seen trained sea lions do, I wouldn't put it past them to open unlocked doors. Finally the humans gave up, left an automated signal, and the island to the sea lions, who are quite content with the arrangement.

I walked back. My contact lens was driving me crazy, and I was glad when I arrived back at the visitors' center where it was dark (inside). I looked at some bones and model (or stuffed) animals and was amazed how tiny the local lynxes (felis rufus) are. They have long legs, but they are not much bigger than a European wild cat (felis silvestris), or large house cats. Not something you'd be worried about encountering. Of course, the other cat species around, for them, is the Mountain Lion, while for European lynxes it's the wild cat. Ecological niches.

I bought a bunch of post cards and returned to my car. On the way back north I stopped at the bright blue diner. They had all-day breakfast, live music (a guy with a guitar), good iced tea and great burgers. I got one with red onions and a thick slice of crisp bacon, mushrooms and lots of melted cheese, plus the usually tomato and lettuce. Hard to eat, but delicious. The fries were good, too. The bag of potato chips was completely unnecessary. Through the window, I could see the road, and some brush, and sand, and the sea. In the door hung a plastic skeleton. Halloween is in two days. The weather forecast says it will rain. I've seen that the weather forecast for home says it will snow at the end of the week.

A few miles farther north I stopped at a beach where a few painters were standing with their easels. I walked out unto another sandy cliff and watched the waves rolling in until I felt the chill, then I turned to drive back.

Highway 92 still had a traffic jam, reaching back to Highway 1. An electronic sign said that the waiting time was about 40 minutes. The alternative route was right through San Francisco and over the Bay Bridge, but one of my rules when driving more-or-less for fun is, "when in doubt, take the unknown route", so I did, and was rewarded with some more amazing scenery, the black, freshly tarred road cut through yellow (sand?) hills like a knife through a muffin. Then the roads became tricky, with highways and freeways branching off left and right, traffic became heavy, and a traffic jam extended from the Bay Bridge back for 15 minutes. It was a fast-moving jam, though, more stop-and-go then actual "hope you brought a book". After the bridge, it had become dark. Traffic was still heavy, and the branching everywhere continued, but I knew where I was going (and still had the navigation system), so I was back at the hotel at 6pm, had a long shower and then huddled on the sofa with tea and a book. (I'll talk about that book soon, it's been keeping me occupied for three days now.)

Later that night, between midnight and 2am I did a couple of phone calls to resolve my "software does not cooperate" problems, and Monday I had a hell of a time getting out of bed, but at least I knew that not only had I seen elephant seals on the weekend, but also conquered the paperwork.

Unfortunately, all the picutures I took are useless because of too much light, so here are some Wikipedia entries to give you an idea of the place:

Elephant seals
Local lynx, or bobcat
Año Nuevo State Park
Pigeon Point Lighthouse

[1] Story rec: On the futility of Daylight Saving, and going to utter weirdness from there: DST Nocturne, by Rebecca