Oh good, fog.
The car smelled like stale pot smoke and Febreze: the Oakland car share special. I rolled down the windows before hitting the freeway. It was easy to get out of town; the first rush hour was over and the second one wouldn’t begin for a few hours. I was going to Point Reyes to gawk at some charismatic megafauna.
What I had in mind was whales. The grey whales migrate past Point Reyes in March and April to their summer feeding grounds in the north, calves in tow. I wanted to photograph a baby whale. In addition to my camera, I’d packed a blanket, a sandwich, a thermos of coffee and plenty of water. The plan was to climb down the equivalent of 30 flights of stairs to the Point Reyes lighthouse, spread out the blanket, have a picnic, and spend the afternoon. And then I would climb up the 30 flights of stairs and have an excuse not to go to the gym.
The Point Reyes lighthouse is about an hour and a half drive. Most of it is spent on two-lane highways that feature hairpin curves through huge pine stands. Proper driving, the kind that features the two-finger salute as you pass others on the road. Passing lanes rendered unnecessary, as slower drivers pull over of their own volition. Friendly cyclists. Historic ranches.
Close to the lighthouse, a loose cow was standing by the side of the road, apparently unconcerned about traffic. Her udder looked uncomfortably full. I gave her the two-finger salute as I drove by.
Though it had been about 70 degrees in Oakland when I left, out here it was much closer to 55. There was a solid wind, and the fog limited visibility beyond about 20 feet. Not a great day for whales. As it turned out, the stairs to the lighthouse were closed; the strong winds made them unsafe.
From the top of the stairs, I could hear murres cackling. They were impossible to see through the fog. Fucking nature.
You can barely see the trail.
Since I’d already rented the car, I figured I’d stay in Point Reyes a while longer, and so I ended up near the trailhead toward Chimney Rock, “the McDonalds of the wildflower world.” Too early for wildflowers probably, I thought, and then I froze. Something very large was in my peripheral vision.
Black tailed deer. (Not Tule Elk.).
Umm, is that woman wearing leggings as pants? She canNOT sit with us.
Nature is impervious to your awe, stupid human.
As I kept going toward the Chimney Rock trailhead, the fog started to lift. I saw a few more mule deer, all either female or juvenile.
Instead of going to Chimney Rock, I walked over to the elephant seal beach overlook. From a distance, the elephant seals look like rocks. Come closer, and you can hear them bellowing.
Elephant seals were also nearly made extinct by early Western settlers, who hunted the animals for their blubber; a grown male provides about 25 gallons of the stuff. In the 1800s, they were apparently abundant from Baja California to Point Reyes. By 1910, fewer than 1,000 were left. The Mexican government banned hunting elephant seals in the 1920s, and the U.S. followed suit. The world population made a remarkable recovery: there are now about 150,000 of them. And after a 150-year absence, they returned to Point Reyes in the early 1970s, having apparently heard that we’d finally gotten rid of Richard Nixon, another native California specimen that is now thankfully extinct.
About 2,000 elephant seals now live in Point Reyes. They spend about 80 percent of their lives at open ocean, diving 1,000 to 2,000 feet to eat. Their eyes are so big because it’s pretty dark down there. Though some marine animals, like jellyfish, provide bioluminescence as well as sustenance for the seals, these sea mammals are basically hunting in a pitch-black environment, using their stiff whiskers to feel for prey. Unlike us, elephant seals carry their oxygen in their blood, so they basically collapse their lungs in order to flop around down there—eating, digesting, taking mid-afternoon naps, whatever. Their heart rates also drop during dives, to 4 to 5 beats a minute, from 55 to 120 beats per minute at the surface.
What’s new, my dudes?
The seals breed at Point Reyes in winter, where they pretty much lie on beaches and holler at each other. Add margaritas and it’s basically my dream vacation. Well, except for the elephant seal sex part. All the females mate with the same huge old gross male. Gentlemen, before you get too excited about the possibility of a harem, please know that statistically you are more likely to get the everliving shit beaten out of you by the huge old gross male, using his sexually-selected snout. Oh, also: he bites. Anyway after you’ve had enough of being beaten to a pulp, you and your pals will fuck off to some less-stressful beach, which lacks any females to fight over.
I wouldn’t like to meet either one of those dudes in a dark alley.
I unpacked my coffee and sandwich and sat down, listening to the elephant seals yell at each other. The charismatic megafauna gods were smiling on me—or at least, the non-whale ones were. After amusing myself by playing elephant seal paparazzo, I went back to the car. On the way back, a peregrine falcon perched atop a fence post, but flew off before I could get my camera out. Fine, you fuck. Tell your whale friends I’ll be back, and I’ll be capturing all your souls on my demon picture machine and uploading them to the Internet. You’ve been warned.
Elizabeth Lopatto is a science reporter based in Oakland, California. She recently left her post at Bloomberg News to scientifically pursue a life of freelancing, photography and hiking. We expect her to file reports regularly here at Greenfriar. (The original version of this story misidentified the black tailed deer as female tule elk. It has been corrected.)