Fight, Flight, or Loll

We were out early at Drake’s Beach in West Marin, California, under changeable skies. It was low tide, and we were the only bipeds around – the parking lot completely empty, no stray campers or hikers, we had the place to ourselves, at least when it came to other humans.

Drake's Beach, California. Photos: PKR

Drake’s Beach, California.
Photos: PKR

And while there were fewer shorebirds than I would have expected, there were a multitude of large crabs. Mostly intact, mostly dead.

And then we started noticing more remnants of life – traces that reflected the retreating tide in broken shells. IMG_2470

Something I haven’t seen before, countless sand dollars, most of them still alive, scattered at the ebb line. Those small, flat sea urchins with the lovely star patterns that we usually see bleached white – these were still pink and moving.

Some clearly were trying to find their way back to the water, leaving elegant script of their flight. (These two were still very alive, and we put them back in the water.)IMG_2474

Other creatures weren’t ready to give up even an inch of territory, no matter the cost. This palm-sized crab was as fierce as they come.IMG_2519

And then there were those who were neither in fight nor flight mode: They were lolling.

The white spots offshore are the whale and her calf.  Photo: Oliver Brüning

The white spots offshore are the whale and her calf.
Photo: Oliver Brüning

It’s not terribly clear from this image (the better camera had given up by the time we got to the bottom of the lighthouse steps), but this small cove below the Point Reyes Lighthouse had a number of seals, all sizes, doing lazy loops while a mother humpback took her calf through its paces, back and forth.

There wasn’t much to do after that then head back to Inverness for a good dinner. Not before having a seat in the empty lighthouse keeper’s chair, though – someone needs to sit there now and again, since the lighthouse was automated forty years ago.

Photo: Oliver Brüning

Photo: Oliver Brüning

Inadvertent Visitors

When I was a kid in northern California, we used to go to the ocean beaches of Marin County on the weekends. The long, sweeping scythes of Drake’s Beach and Limantour still count among my favorite ocean shorelines. Beachgoers wore swimsuits on warm days, but we could always tell the tourists from the locals because the tourists were the ones trying to swim in those suits instead of wade or sunbathe.

Locals usually considered swimming the Pacific water too cold for our tender hothouse skin, even in summer. Non-neoprened swimmers venturing into the waters for a swim were a rare sight.

Drake's Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore Photo: Richard Blair

Drake’s Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore
Photo: Richard Blair

This year, researchers and fishermen have seen even rarer sights: Several species that would normally be found far south have been observed in northern waters. An endangered green sea turtle, usually at home in the waters of southern Mexico and around the Galapagos Islands. The tiny striated sea butterfly and a Guadalupe fur seal, both of Baja California, Mexico, common dolphins, blue buoy barnacles and purple-striped jellyfish of southern California.

Striated Sea Butterfly (Hyalocylis striata), collected offshore from Bodega Marine Laboratory. Photo: Eric Sanford/UC Davis

Striated Sea Butterfly (Hyalocylis striata), collected offshore from Bodega Marine Laboratory.
Photo: Eric Sanford/UC Davis

It’s an influx of inadvertent tourists, animals that would normally encounter the cold water barrier of the northern Pacific and turn around, much as I used to do on the beach when I waded in above the knee level.

According to several sources, water temperatures are 5-6 degrees Fahrenheit (2-3 °C) higher than average this year, likely due to a slackening of winds from the north that would normally keep warm waters further south. The annual winds would also normally cool and push surface waters down, causing colder water to churn up from below (‘upwelling’).

And what about the local species that like it cold? The krill, the salmon? They are scarce, as are the animals that feed on them, the whales and birds.

It’s a 30-year autumnal anomaly, which most expect to pass and with it, the strange and wondrous visitors.