Some field trips barely work out and some are gems. This, the last field trip of the year, on Sunday, December 19, 2004 was a true gem! Six camera club members and three associates found their way to the parking lot nearest Sea Lion Point at Point Lobos State Reserve. Some were a trifle early and some a trifle late, but not enough to quibble about.
When we embarked on the trail, the morning air still had a chilly bite to it. We could hear the surf pounding from the parking lot and that sweet bouquet of the Pacific, mingled with the scent of pine and cypress, was a delight to our noses. At the cliff-side overlook the bouquet changed to the pungent odor of pinniped excrement and guano—phew!
The cloudless sky was a sparkling electric blue with a slight frosting of haze that veiled the coastal rocks to the south with a luminescent glow. The ocean boiled in deep blues, turquoise upwellings and white froth. The gentle surf licked the beaches with frothy white waves and the greens and tans of the seaweed and kelp shone up through the deep pools like the colors of jasper. I had forgotten what beauty Point Lobos had to offer! I think I should come here at least once a year in order to maintain my memories. I thanked fate and the heavens for stranding me in California—this park preserves a rare and beautiful part of our Golden State and I was fortunate enough to be here on this day to enjoy it.
Well, how does one describe such a paradise with words? You really can’t, you have to come out to Point Lobos and take the Cypress Grove Trail through the enchanted forest, or walk the craggy south shore to China Cove (which we didn’t) or take the north trail to Whaler’s Cove (which we did for a change) and watch the Monarch butterflies float like motile feathers in the winter sunlight.
No one could have wished for a better day—save for the lack of a landscape photographer’s sky. That, however, didn’t stop our group from taking images of herons, egrets, cormorants, gulls, rabbits, seals, sea lions and the abundant flora.
Sea Lion Point was teeming with sea mammals. Our group saw some fine examples of California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus) out on the remote rocks off the point. Point Lobos, in fact, was named after these barking sea lions. The Spanish called it Punta de los Lobos Marinos, meaning “point of the sea wolves.” Hundreds of sea lions make the rock formations their home from August to June.
Closer in, on the flat rock shelves near the beach, there were several Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina) basking in the morning sun. Harbor seals look like fat, spotted sausages—their fur ranges in color from almost white to nearly black. Park docents spotted a number of Southern Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) out in the kelp beds a hundred or so yards off the point. The otters had wrapped themselves in kelp leaves to keep them anchored in the surf and you could have see them floating on their backs and preening themselves if you looked through the spotting scope that the docents had set up on the cliff. That morning one of the docents saw the first whale of the season off the point. Most likely it was a Pacific Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus), a habitué of Monterey Bay during the months of December through April, the time of their winter migration to the warm lagoons of Baja California, Mexico.
Other marine mammals frequently seen at the point include the Steller Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubatus) a larger species commonly found north of Año Nuevo point; the Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga angustirostris)—an occasional molting juvenile shows up at the point; and Killer Whales (Orcas), Humpback Whales, Blue Whales, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Common Dolphins and porpoises in the waters off the point.
Birds are abundant on land and sea and those with extreme telephotos got pictures of herons, egrets, hawks and other land and shorebirds. Our shooters saw some examples of the abundant terrestrial wildlife, too.
The plants at Point Lobos are distinctive, the most prevalent of which is the Monterey Cypress. The only two native colonies of these trees are found at Cypress Point in Carmel and here at Point Lobos. The species is now a common choice for landscaping schemes and has been taken off the endangered species list precisely for that reason.
Our group walked through several plant communities (ecotones) including those of the Monterey Cypress Forest, Monterey Pine Forest, Northern Coastal Prairie (meadows), Northern Coastal Scrub and Coastal Bluff plant communities. Some of the plants we saw along the trails included the coffeeberry (Ceanothus), poison oak (the new leaves of which were just emerging), the Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata)—on their branches, lace lichen (Ramalina reticulata), and the distinctive Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa)—on their seaward sides were the bright orange algae Trentepohlia aurea v. polycarpa (actually a green algal growth rich in beta carotene).
Geologically the park sits on a combination of volcanic and sedimentary rocks. Volcanic rock from the Santa Lucia Granodiorite formation of 100 million years ago pushed itself up to the surface and is one of the four major types of rock visible on Point Lobos. The oldest rock, a hard granite-like igneous rock is covered by ancient deposits of sand and gravel that hardened into a type of sandstone called the Carmelo Formation. Atop the 60-million-year-old Carmelo sandstone is sedimentary rock, the remains of ancient marine terraces of clay, silt, sand and gravel. These sediments are about two million years old. The most recent deposits on the point include sand and pebbles deposited by the ocean and landslide debris dating back as much as ten thousand years ago. As we hiked to various locations around the point some of these major rock types were very evident.
Whether or not you give a hoot about all that scientific gibberish, this park is a must-see destination. If you can’t go with our group, then by all means go by yourself—it is well worth the drive. The park brochure has a quote on it that sums it up in a few words: “…the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” Landscape artist Francis McComas spoke those unassailable words and I think all those who took this trip would agree.
Incidentally, those of us who gathered for an early dinner in Monterey were treated to a taste of adventure on U.S. 101 on our way home. A downed power line, near the Betabel exit, forced us to backtrack into Watsonville and take the Hecker Pass Road to Gilroy so we could reconnect with 101. Thanks to the quick thinking of Dave H. and his nimble fingers on his cellular phone keypad, both parties avoided hours of gridlock on the freeway.
© 2004 S.R. Hinrichs