Making cynical landscape shots is easy. Making pretty landscape photos is easy, too. Well, as easy as any top-notch photography is. Making uncynical landscape photos of beautiful places without falling into making pretty postcard photos is pretty hard, and harder still when you’re as off-the-bicycle as I am. You have to put your hangups in your pocket and just get on with it – open yourself to the images without having to make them a certain way and putting away all your know-it-allness about this stuff – just get something modest to go home with and say a small thanks for being here.
I love the light just after the sun has set, but before it gets totally dead. It was cold and roughly windy on the Big Sur. I think the first one’s my favourite.
drove down California Route 1 (the famous Pacific Coast Highway) from Monterey to Malibu yesterday. This coastline is amazingly beautiful, and huge stretches have been saved from the depredations of property developers (which is quite astonishing considering their political influence around here and what they’ve shamelessly done to other bits of the US shore). It was clear but extremely cold and windy. As you can see, it’s the type of place that photographers with more patience than me make a lot of money from (you’ll have to live with these quick snaps, I’m afraid).
Anyhow, so there I was, just me and a bunch of hokey radio stations, driving down hundreds of miles of something like the Garden Route (before the golf estate mafiosos got it) and Chapman’s Peak combined,
when I came round a bend and – holy smoke – there are hundreds of dead seals on that beach! The first thing that came to mind was the classic crane shot from Gone With the Wind, where the camera rises up to show us litter-loads of battle casualties from the US Civil War.
I stopped the car and had a closer look. Their bodies were kind-of saggy and flattened, and some had skin peeling off them, like rotten week-old Cape Buffalo carcases in Kruger.
Some were clearly not yet dead – they lifted their heads and made plaintive noises, then flopped down again. Others weakly struggled, their flippers unable to move their large bodies, merely succeeding in throwing sand in the air.
It took me half a minute to realise that there was a parking lot next to the beach. A few people were milling about ineffectually, seemingly led by three-odd middle aged ladies in blue bibs – the rescue team, I surmised. I pulled into the parking lot, eager to find what I thought might be an interesting news story. I then discovered that my take on the seals was utterly, completely, wrong.
The pinnipeds that I had seen from the road are Elephant Seals. Since 1990 or therabouts they have been coming to the beach to breed, socialise, and complete their annual moult (which, for females, happens this time of year). This involves lying on the beach, not feeding and hardly moving (inc. hardly breathing) for a whole month while their old fur falls out and new fur grows in – hence the ‘peeling skin’ look. Why they flip sand on to themselves is a bit of mystery – perhaps it’s to keep the sun off their sensitive skin or maybe “just to give themselves something to do”, according to one of the blue-bibbed Elephant Seal volunteers. They’re huge – the females in these photos are about double the size of Cali Sea Lions, I reckon.
For some, the moult was clearly more than a little itchy.
These beasts are called Elephant Seals because the males develop a big trunk-like nose as they get older. This time of year the males are all supposed to be feeding in the waters off Alaska – the guidebooks say they only arrive at this beach in June, when they barge each other around making noises like – well – hippos. One young male (6 years old, according to his small trunk) had arrived early, and floated about grunting, looking for other males to fight with and females to seduce.
He came up on to the beach while I was there, finding no fighting partners and eliciting no more than silent, unmoving disinterest from the girls (clearly the dumb kid in the back of the class who never looked over the marine mammal field guides closely enough. Need to read to pull the chicks, buddy!)
So, actually a happy scene. Yellow flowers, itchy seals, etc. etc., and a fun 20 min leg-stretching diversion for me.
I stayed overnight with Randy Olsen, a filmmaker (and ex evolutionary biologist) who makes movies about the failure of scientists to communicate. He’s into working with comedy actors to turn science and enviro education into entertainment, which is really refreshing to me.
I’m off now, driving back up the coast. I gotta make it all the way to San Francisco by midday tomorrow to catch my flight to Alaska…
From Malibu, from just near Cher’s giant hillside mansion, with love
one of the most intriguing raptors (just about still) around is the California Condor. When I last passed down the California coast for a few days early in 1991 I had no chance of seeing them – the last 22 birds had all been captured and taken into captivity by 1987. Modernity does not agree too well with this scavenger with its 9-foot wingspan – birds were being electrocuted by powerlines and poisoned by the remnants of lead bullets left in the carcases of deer. Many experts believed that, even if the they could be bred in captivity, there were simply too few left to allow the species to last as inbreeding would simply, gradually finish the job that industrial society had started.
Dedicated efforts by conservationists, and not a small amount of money ($35 million to date), saw this Condor thrive in zoos and captive breeding facilities. In late 1991 the first individuals were released back into the California skies. Since then they have been followed by many others. Today 148 birds fly free in California, Arizona, and western Mexico and similar number exist in captivity.
Of course, 300 birds is still too few. Although they can live for up to 60 years, they only find their life partners and start breeding successfully between eight and fourteen years of age, and then only produce one youngster every two years. Although some birds are now breeding in the wild, they are heavily assisted. New eggs are removed by climbers to be artificially kept warm in a super-safe incubator, and an artificial dummy egg is left behind to fool the parents into thinking they’re doing what they’re meant to do. Just before these eggs hatch they are spirited back into the nest, and the parents take over.
Powerlines and lead bullet fragments left in deer carcases still kill them and nestlings have been dying after being fed with small bits of junk (bottle caps, PVC plastic shards, etc.). Condors survive outside zoos because conservationists feed them (stillborn cattle, mainly) and each free-flying bird is closely monitored – every single one is electronically tagged. Every few years each is recaptured and its tag batteries replaced. If a Condor seems too unafraid of people or is seen perching on powerlines, it is captured and taken back to live inside a cage, the value of its genes higher than that of its freedom; the wild California Condor is in some sense extinct.
I went down the Big Sur coast today (April 28, 2008) with Sayre Flannagan, a wildlife biologist with the Ventura Wildlife Society. We saw two nests and – amazingly – five condors. My bird-eyes are clearly still working despite chronic sleep deprivation because I saw the fourth bird through a tiny gap in the trees as we were whizzing by a small valley on Route 1. Most birds were too far away to photograph and, trust my luck, the only flying photograph-able one (Condor no. 222) decided to flap past with my camera unset-up and in shocking light.
A few blurry grab shots are better than nowt, so that’s what you’ve gowt.
Unwild or wild, cosseted or free, I’m very glad that some of these huge, bare-bulge faced birdies (their skin colour changes with emotion) still soar on the uprising air of the California coast. Thanks, Sayre, for a great day – and my first Cali Condors!
PS Midd Fellows will be pleased to learn that we passed within a quarter-mile of two (separate) just-hatched nestling Condors on our excursion. I won’t tell you where, though – I’ve been sworn to secrecy! The nest sites are just too vulnerable to talk about.
is an interesting story regarding Condors which raises the old question: How ‘objective’ can experts be when they’re paid by developers?