Up the California Coast - Featuring Elephant Seals ! (I think.)

Now, part two in my photo-diary of my recent travels:

After my parents, D (the beloved boyfriend, a moniker too too precious to sustain), and I returned from our idyllic and surprisingly active trip to Hawaii, we paused for a single night in Los Angeles to gather our wits, and the following morning we hopped in D's car and headed up the Pacific Coast Highway. Our destination was a family reunion in Berkeley, where I hadn't been in nearly a decade.

Both D and my parents are fascinated by tidal pools and marine life, so it ended up being something of a perfect trip. Our first slimy friend was caught unawares by the tide's departure near Morro Bay, a town that features a grim, looming offshore rock that our guidebook routinely called "the brute."

The towns in this part of the California coast have a charming, calm, old-fashioned feel (at least at midweek when we were visiting) - the sort of comfortable, sand-worn, faded quality that I imagine (perhaps with false nostalgia) was how beaches used to feel, before the rush of desperate commercialism.

We hurried up towards Big Sur and San Simeon. Overcome by our fascination with elephant seals, we passed over the Hearst Castle in favor of watching these juveniles wallow sardine-like on the beach:

What is not immediately evident here is the constant jostling for position that characterized this group of slugabeds. Nascently dominant seals would emerge from the water, confront the issue of overcrowding, and let out a demanding honk. An expression remarkably like eye-rolling would pass over the faces of the seals in front of him, and they would shift plumply and resignedly out of the way. Less aggressive personalities would come out of the water, look grimly at the group, and begin a slow and nonchalant progress around the edge of the group, often flopping on top of some other fringe seal in order finally to join the community. Not that I was projecting human social relationships onto these creatures. Oh no.

Elephant seals are perhaps the single most Muppet-like animals I have ever laid eyes on. If you examine the snout of the yelping juvenile below, you will see that he appears to have a Seussical protuberance on his nose. As he grows older, and more dominant, his nose will grow, ultimately extending quite extraordinarily far from his face, and flopping mightily back and forth when he throws back his head to produce outraged yawps.

This wee one was, inexplicably and I hope not sinisterly, separated from the rest of the group, lying on the next beach over all by his/her lonesome and (I have to say) sort of vamping for the cameras. In the picture we finally got, however, s/he looks sort of mournful.

Don't be fooled by the appearance of laziness - these creatures like a good fight (as you can see below, with the playful juveniles) and can move faster than a human even on sand. Further up the PCH, we stopped again to see massive and well-endowed (proboscisly speaking) adult male elephant seals molting. It was apparently quite an itchy affair; every so often a seal would curl up his flipper and, in a remarkably human gesture, give his side a good scratch (although, as someone in my family pointed out, it must be intensely frustrating to have such a limited scratching reach). A regular at the adult seal beach told us that the males, despite their often playful, sometimes bloody fights, were really quite uninterested in humans. You could walk right up to them (I don't recommend this. Quite apart from your safety, they smell quite appalling) and they would hardly care. The females, however, are intensely dangerous, even when pups are not around.

As we continued north, we came upon small (relatively) redwood groves and stunning, forbidden beaches. Apparently the beach below, which features a tiny, perfect waterfall (out of sight) is the site of the vast majority of emergency rescues on this part of the central California coast. Signs everywhere warned us off of trying to rappel down the crumbling cliffs to the idyllic scene below, but when you peered over the edge you saw a single pair of human footprints making their way across the flawless sand. ("I could get down there, no problem," D said, pugnaciously. I shot him a dirty look.)

Next up:
Coming down the California coast,
Our fascination with the Aquarium,