Thursday, August 20, 2015

California Coast Trip - Day 2

When last I left off, we'd found out about a scheduled beach walk starting from San Simeon Cove.  We decided to try to hook up with the tour, then have lunch (in that same one restaurant that's in the "town") and then head up the coast to the Elephant Seal rookery.

We arrived at the Marine Wildlife Center in the San Simeon Cove parking lot shortly before 11 AM.  It's very small - just a two room trailer - but they had a lot of great information about the local marine wildlife and some great hands-on exhibits to look at.  My son particularly enjoyed looking at the live plankton not only under the microscope, but projected life-size up on the wall so you really watch them move around.  The water sample was taken fresh from the cove that morning.

Then, we met our guide and discovered that we were in for a real treat.  He turned out to be a retired professor of marine biology from the University of Arizona.  Nothing like getting what was basically a free college lecture by an expert while out in the field!  He gave us a lot of information about the local ecosystem as well as a great hands-on demonstration of tides, currents, wave formation, etc. 

We headed out to the beach to see what the tide had left behind.  It was not as low as it could have been for optimal tide pool exploration, but we still managed to see quite a lot.  We learned about many different species of algae and kelp, the differences between them, and which varieties are prized by which animals.  I will never look at all of them collectively as "seaweed" ever again.

He talked to us about the rocks and minerals that make up the coast and the sand - including some that are gemstones!  In particular, there's a lot of jade and moonstone (which is why the beach in front of our hotel is called Moonstone Beach).  I never found any moonstone, but I did pick up this rock that he agreed is probably jade:

That greenish-blue part is actually translucent and forms nearly the whole rock - there's just a bit of hardened sediment on top and bottom.

The color shades to a more yellowy-green in a couple of spots. 

Later on in the story of our trip, I'll show an example of what this type of stone looks like when properly shaped and polished.  But the beach wasn't done surprising us...
As we turned to head back to the pier, my son found this enormous Sea Hare - alive! - washed up on the sand.  Sea Hares are a large variety of sea slug.  They produce ink when disturbed and can be toxic to most predators.  This one was about the size of a football.  I've seen them in aquariums and once or twice when scuba diving, but it was amazing to see one up on the beach.
We carefully placed it into a tide pool where it could stay wet and cool until the incoming tide would cover it up and allow it to return to deeper water.  Placing it directly back into the water would like have resulted in it getting battered by the surf on the rocks. 

After finishing our tour, we went back to the same spot we'd eaten at the day before (since there really is no other choice).  The Red Winged Blackbirds were still hanging around...

But it was preening and siesta time...

Gotta get your feathers in order before you can nap!

Not sure if this is a female or a juvenile...

...but here's a pair in a tree.  We also had turkey vultures circling overhead on the updrafts (in fact, they were a constant presence during the entire trip - never seen so many in my life!) and at one point, a Red-Tailed Hawk landed in a nearby tree.  I grabbed my camera, but was just not fast enough to get a shot before it took off again.  After lunch, it was off to the seal rookery...
This next series of photos are terrible, I know.  I can only say that it was mid-afternoon so the sun was not in the optimal position and that I was so immediately entranced by all the action of these huge, impressive animals that I forgot all about silly things like camera settings, sun position, etc. and just started clicking away like a maniac.

At this time of year, only the males have come ashore at this beach.  The females are all out at sea.  There were about 50 or so individuals.  They are there to molt. 

However, during the breeding season, as many as 22,000 individuals pack this beach.

Some of them had already finished their molting, but you can see that this guy is still shedding his old skin.

Oh, and did I mention they are quite cantankerous?  Every few minutes one of them would raise up and BELLOW!  Imagine the sound of a toilet gurgling...but crank it up about a 100 times and add some deeper resonance and you might be close.  Of course, they made other noises, too.  Since my 12-year-old could not stop doubling over with laughter at listening to THOSE noises, I will leave you to imagine what they sounded like.  Once a bellow is issued...if there's another seal right close by, he will either answer back or, like these two, start a battle.
They will actually rear back and then throw their head forward and slam their teeth into each other.  This guy managed to get everyone else to back off from his area.
This one rose up part way like he was going to bellow, but then ended up going back to sleep.
This is a younger male (notice his nose is not quite as big) so he did a lot of practicing, but stayed well away from the bigger guys.
For good reason - they don't mess around!
Check out that schnozz...and those teeth!  By the way, for all their size and weight, they can still outrun a human on land...which is why all the people have to stay up on the bluff above the beach.
Even the youngsters get into battles...although it was clear that these were more "play" or practice for the future than anything serious.
They are definitely better looking before they grow the big nose.
They've already got their teeth, though!

And a lot more energy than the adults!

These two carried this mock battle all up and down the beach.

Another, slightly older pair even battled out in the water.

They reminded me of watching teenagers roughhousing at a swimming pool. 

This guy was the littlest one on the whole beach and I think he finally got tired of the shenanigans and headed in for a sun nap. 

This experience was so incredible that we ended up going back to this location two more times before we left the area for the next stage of our journey.  I haven't been through those photos yet, but am hoping I got better shots.  I would love to go back during breeding season - I cannot imagine that beach holding 22,000 of these incredible animals.  And if the "mock" battles were this intense then the real thing must be a sight to behold!  But this day was not quite finished offering wildlife encounters.  We headed into the small town of Cambria to pick up some supplies and as we were exiting the farmer's market, I heard a woman exclaim "Oh my gosh...look at that!"
Up in the corner under the awning that was over the front of the market...a Swallow's nest.  Based on what I saw of the adults, I believe they were Barn Swallows.

I'm sure I annoyed people as I stood in the entrance/exit of the market trying to snap photos, but I couldn't resist the cuteness!

From what I could see, there appeared to be four babies.  The second one from the right is clearly not impressed with me. 

The second one from the left just wants his dinner.
I mean...he REALLY wants his dinner!  Time for me to back off and let Momma Bird make the bugs-for-dinner delivery.
Next installment includes another search for tide pool activity.


Steve Borichevsky said...

My wife and I took a trip to San Simeon ten years ago. I was surprised to see elephant seals. For a kid who grew up in Vermont watching Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and seeing Marlin Perkins get chased by Elephant Seals, well, it was pretty cool. Thinking back then, I never though I would get to see them. Fast forward some 30-40 years and there they were!

Phil Slade said...

That's a great read. It must be a fantastic experience to see and hear those sea elephants up close like that. And I had to google "sea hare" as I'd never heard of such a creature but read about why it is named "hare" at