Sea Lions and Butterflies

Monarch butterflies have been in decline for many years. Currently, the numbers of monarchs wintering in California us around 27,000. In the 1980's, that number was around 4.5 million. Pesticides and lack of native food (displaced by agriculture) have been the reasons for decline. I have regretted not getting to see and photograph them when they were plentiful, so when early reports suggested that this year their numbers were up slightly, my wife and I decided to drive up the coast and check. The other attractions in that area at this time of year are birds and elephant seals. Morro Bay has a bird festival every year in early January and there is a beach near Piedras Blancas favored by elephant seals to give birth and raise their pups. Of course, there are also migrating whales and other sea life so we correctly assumed there would be plenty to see.

While there are many places to see Monarch butterflies, including my own yard, the best place is a grove of eucalyptus in Pismo Beach. Getting a late start out of Los Angeles, we decided to stop in Pismo on our way home and headed directly to the Inn at Morro Bay. We did stop along the way at a good, fast-casual Middle Eastern restaurant called Jaffa Cafe in Arroyo Grande. We liked it well enough to include it in our plans on our return trip.

We like the Inn at Morro Bay because in addition to having a nice view of the bay, it is right next to Morro Bay State Park, which includes a bird sanctuary.  Here is a shot of a Great Blue Heron in that sanctuary. January is a great time to see a wide variety of birds. To be able to get a hotel room, we scheduled our trip to just miss the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival that is held every year in January.

Great Blue Heron

Untitled photo

Morro Bay takes its name from the Spanish word for a helmet or crown shaped hill, "Morro." Morro rocked was named in 1542 by a Portuguese explorer named Juan Cabrillo. There are a series of these crown shaped hills, with the one in the bay being the most prominent and also the one farthest to the West. Each morro is actually a volcanic plug. There is a series of thirteen of them, stretching East over the mountains towards San Luis Obispo.

Like most hotels in the area, the the Inn at Morro Bay has a nice view across the bay towards the morro. The following shot was taken from a balcony outside our room on a previous trip. That balcony by the way, comes with a hot tub.

Morro Rock at Sunrise

Untitled photo

Morro Rock was quarried to provide rock to make the seawall that forms the west side of Morro Bay. The bay itself is an estuary of the Chorro and Los Osos creeks, with a long sandbar forming its southern side. The estuary forms one the the most important winter transit points for over 20,000 migrating seabirds. The Morro Bay watershed has an area of about 72 square miles.

One of those birds is the endangered Peregrine Falcon. In 1970 when they were added to the Endangered Species List, there were only 5 pair west of the Rockies. Morro Rock is one of the areas where they made their comeback and the Rock continues to be off-limits to climbers in order to protect the peregrines and other birds. Today, there are over 400 breeding pairs in California. Though still protected, they are no longer listed as endangered.

Peregrine and Turkey Vulture

Untitled photo

From prior experience, I know that the best place to see otters is on the bay side of the causeway, in the channel close to the rock. Sure enough, they were out napping and floating comfortably in the tide. I have to say, it looks like a good life.

Sea Otter Looking Around

Untitled photo

They Wrap Themselves in Seaweed to Keep from Floating Away

Untitled photo

On the other side of the causeway/parking lot were a group of surfers. The water was cold so they were wearing drysuits. The waves were huge by my standards, what surfers would call "double overhead" or twice the height of a man. The way to get outside the break was to paddle out next to the rock - very dangerous in my opinion. It looked like a fabulous beach to surf, miles and miles of break without any obvious rocks other than the big one, but that day was much too big for me.

Paddling Out Next to the Rock

Untitled photo

Cutting Left

Untitled photo

Double Overhead

Untitled photo

Even the Whitewater is Huge

Untitled photo

That afternoon, I had to leave my car with a local, Morro Bay mechanic because one of my tires was losing pressure. While wandering around town, I came across a sign in front of a closed restaurant. It said, "If you are hungry and don't have money,I will make you free food." It was a mediterranean place, so I made note of it for the next day.

It was raining the next morning, so we went to the nearby Morro Bay Maritime Museum. When we came by the restaurant around 11:00 AM, it was still closed but the owner, Abe was inside getting ready so he invited us inside. He was the warmest human being. Anyone who spends five minutes with this man will count him as a close friend. The food was also good. The chicken shawarma was especially tender and well seasoned. The place is called Grape Leaf Deli and Market.

After lunch, we headed up the coast to Cayucos. It's hard to pass through Cayucos without stopping at the Brown Butter Cookie Company, especially since they give free samples.

After Cayucos is the little outpost of Harmony, followed by the charming little town of Cambria. We found a hotel northwest of Cambria at the far end of Moonstone Beach. Since the rain had followed us north, we staying in our hotel until sunset when the rain stopped. Right across the street from the hotel there is a viewpoint overlooking the water. The sunset was gorgeous.

Coastline near Cayucos

Untitled photo

Sunset from Moonstone Beach

Untitled photo

I Loved the Backlit Waves and Spray

Untitled photo

The next morning had clearer skies, so we headed further up the coast to see the elephant seals. These homely animals are absolutely amazing. The following is a quote from The Friends of the Elephant Seal website.

"The northern elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris, is an extraordinary marine mammal. It spends eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1000 to 5800 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours, and migrating thousands of miles, twice a year, to its land-based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting, and rest. Piedras Blancas is a great place to view these remarkable creatures during their time onshore."

December through March is the best time to see them. 


Elephant Seal Rookery

Untitled photo

Young Male Elephant Seal

Untitled photo

Female Elephant Seal

Untitled photo

You can easily tell the genders apart. Besides being bigger, the males have an extension of their nose that hangs like a cup in front of their mouth. The reason for this, is that appendage amplifies and deepens the sound of their roar like the bell of a trumpet. It makes them sound more ferocious. From what I can tell, that flap of flesh tends to get bigger with age. Males weigh up to 5,000 pounds and can be up to 16 feet long.  When fighting, they rise up and bash their chests against one another. They also try to bite but generally, they do not fight to the point of serious injury or death. Only a small proportion of the males actually get to breed. A successful male can father up to 500 pups during his 9 year lifespan. We could see big males with a harem of a half dozen or more females chase off other males frequently.

Male and Female Elephant Seals

Untitled photo

Females are pregnant for 11 months. Most of their gestation is spent at sea. They are only ashore for 5 weeks. During that shore time, they give birth, nurse and breed again before heading back out to sear. While ashore, neither the males or females eat. They live on stored fat.

Elephant seals are solitary hunters the rest of the year. Males dive down to the floor of the continental shelf to feed on the sea bottom. Females head out into the open ocean and generally feed in deep water but not on the sea floor. Females can dive to a depth of over 5,000 feet and can stay down longer than males. Elephant seals store oxygenated blood in their spleens to stay down longer. Both males and females can stay down around two hours.

Elephant seal pups gain an average of 10 pounds per day while nursing. That's a lot of milk. The females are mostly lying still to conserve energy.

Baby and Mother Elephant Seal

Untitled photo

Sniff to Be Sure

Untitled photo

Pup Nursing

Untitled photo

Older Male

Untitled photo

The only predators for elephant seals are great white sharks and killer whales. Many of the elephant seals we saw had tooth marks in their blubber. A docent pointed out how to tell which tooth marks were made by which predator. 

Actually, the greatest predator of elephant seals was humans. They were hunted for their blubber and by 1884 were declared extinct. In 1892, a group of 8 elephant seals were discovered by a Smithsonian team on Guadalupe island off Mexico. The Smithsonian team proceeded to kill 7 of them for specimens. Way to go, scientists. Fortunately, both the Mexican government and the 1970 Marine Mammals Protection Act has protected them from father hunting. There are now over 150,000 Northern Elephant Seals. It is estimated that there were less than 100 individuals at their low point, creating a genetic bottleneck that will require many generations to repair, but their current numbers are probably similar to what existed prior to blubber hunting.

Ring of Bite Marks From a Great White

Untitled photo

A note on visiting the viewing area; There is a small sign but the real giveaway is the large, dirt parking lot on the ocean side of Highway One. Visitors are kept safely apart from the elephant seals by a chain link fence on the top of the bluff. The Elephant seals on are the beach about 10 to 15 feet directly below the bluff.

There are no restroom facilities at this pullout, so plan ahead. You will likely want to spend several hours watching. There are of course no other facilities like food or gasoline. This is just a pullout on the road but it is only about 20 minutes from Cambria.

On our way back to Cambria, driving down Highway One, my wife pointed inland a hundred yards and I slammed on the brakes. Zebras! I forgot we were driving past Hearst Castle and the San Simeon estate. William Randolph Hearst kept a number of exotic animals on his ranch. We had seen zebras there before. Of course, I turned around, parked and got out my 600 mm lens.

Zebras!

Untitled photo

After another night at Moonstone Beach, we headed down the coast. As you can see from the image below, it wasn't so foggy or overcast. Our goal that morning was the Monarch Butterfly Preserve in Pismo Beach, about 90 minutes south.

Leffingwell Beach

Untitled photo

The Butterfly Preserve is free to the public. It is a eucalyptus grove beside the road, with a couple of outhouses and souvenir stands. Parking is informal, on either side of the street.

When we arrived and walked over to the stand of trees, we couldn't see a single butterfly. None were flying around and we couldn't see any in the trees. Noticing someone with a spotting cope, I set up my tripod and camera and aimed where he was looking. Still nothing. A docent came by and pointed out a colony to me. Because the weather was cool and the skies overcast, the butterflies were all closed, their brighter colors not showing. They were also at least 50 feet away. As the morning warmed up and the light grew stronger, a few began to open. Eventually, most of the butterflies woke up and started flapping their wings, some of them even flying around. I had read that in the past, it was like a blizzard of butterflies. That was not the case for us but I did manage to get some good shots.

Monarchs Were Hard to Spot

Untitled photo

Monarchs Opening with the Light

Untitled photo

I used a 600 mm lens on my full frame Sony A7r4 (60 Megapixels) and had to crop significantly to get the shots below. Even when the butterflies were open, people could not see them with their naked eyes. I let a number of people look through my viewfinder.

At 600 mm and Cropped

Untitled photo

Close Crop

Untitled photo

After the butterfly preserve and lunch at Jaffa Cafe, we headed back down the coast, getting off only because of a magnificent sunset shaping up  off Ventura. From Los Angeles, a short drive up the coast can yield a lot of beauty and relaxation.

Ventura Sunset

Untitled photo

Doesn't every California story end with a sunset?

I'll see you out there,

David Wells

Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In