Sunday 14 August 2011

Driving California's Highway 1 awakens the senses

   (c) By Jim Fox

The 15,000 resident elephant seals along the beaches at Ragged Point, Calif. attract crowds of onlookers. (Jim Fox photo)
   The stench can be nauseating. The moans, belches and groans deafening. But the drive is exhilarating.
   This is California's Highway 1 along the Pacific Ocean that's one of the most scenic drives in the world.
   But there's one beach avoided by sunbathers and surfers.
   Even though, crowds form daily at Piedras Blancas to gawk at the sunbathers - hundreds, often thousands, of elephant seals. They spend their days lazing in the sun, grunting and covering themselves in sand.
   "Don't stand downwind from the seals," was the advice Tom Wolfe, concierge at the Fairmont San Francisco, offers as we set off on the drive south from the hotel atop Nob Hill.
   At the beach there's an "elephant seal symphony," in particular what mimics non-stop human belching. It's just the call of the elephant seal.
   Add to that gargles, grunts, snorts, bleats, whimpers, squeaks, squeals and the male elephant seal trumpeting to produce this concerto.

Editor's note: Also see the companion piece about the drive along California 1 at

   This rookery along the coastal highway at the southern end of Big Sur is especially noisy during breeding season. Males bellow threats, pups squawk for food and females squabble over prime location and their pups.
One of the most scenic spots along California's Highway 1 is Bixby Creek Bridge, a concrete arch 80 metres high and 215 metres long, near Big Sur. (Jim Fox photo)
   The wonder of nature is a recent phenomenon for these once-reclusive and huge, blubbery marine mammals.
   Most rookeries are on islands off North America's Pacific coast from Vancouver Island to Baja California, not on the mainland.
   Since colonizing these unspoiled beaches and coves, their population has grown to 16,000 as seals return to their familiar breeding grounds. There were fewer than two dozen seals there in 1990.
   They can be seen there throughout the year.
   It's busy now as young seals have arrived followed by mature breeding seals in November. Babies are born in late December through the end of January.
   The mom seals' maternity leave is short. They take off after five weeks of giving birth but the males and pups laze around for about three months.
   Visitors can learn all about their habits from members of the Friends of the Elephant Seals who are there daily. It's a convenient spot with a parking lot just off Highway 1, boardwalks and lookout points.
California's Highway 1 is where mountains plunge almost vertically into the Pacific Ocean as seen south of Big Sur. (Jim Fox photo)
   This animal adventure began in San Francisco after viewing frolicking sea lions and harbour seals that draw crowds to Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39.
   Heading south toward Monterey, there are tours available to view killer whales, as well as humpback, grey and blue whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea otters, seals, sea lions and sea birds.
   The Monterey Bay Aquarium, housed in an old cannery complex, helps demystify the mysteries of the ocean and its creatures. It houses more than 700 species of marine life in almost 200 galleries including a 3.8-million litre Outer Bay tank with tuna, sharks and sea turtles.
   Steve Johnston, aquarium naturalist, said the "most prominent" marine animals to be seen along the coast are the "various pinnipeds: elephant seals, California sea lions and harbour seals."
   Just listen for them. Sea lions gather on beaches to breed and their "vocalizing" can be heard for kilometres while harbour seals "make croaking noises" when others encroach on their personal space, he said.
   Carmel-by-the-Sea is the spot to see lots of pelicans and kingfishers among 250 species of birds and mammals at Point Lobos State Reserve.
Morro Rock, a volcanic remnant, at Morro Bay, California is inhabited by peregrine falcons and frolicking sea otters. (Jim Fox photo)
   South of the seal rookery is Morro Bay with an embarcadero that's a protected zone inhabited by peregrine falcons and frolicking sea otters.
   In the bay is Morro Rock, a huge volcanic remnant where visitors gather along the causeway to watch the resident otter families. Mom otters glide on their backs through the water with their pups riding on their chests.
Sara Loven points out the flora and fauna at Montana de Oro State Park. (Jim Fox photo)
   While in the bay area, there's a coastal hiking trail at Montana de Oro State Park to see "native plants, birds and huge crashing waves curling into rocks that look like outstretched hands," said local resident Sara Loven.

   Along the California coast, several species of whales can be seen.
   Grey whales migrate from Alaska to Mexico between December to February and then back from March to May.
   In the warmer months, blue whales feed offshore along with the humpback, the most acrobatic of the species that slap their tails between bouts of lunge feeding.

Photo opportunities galore. (Barbara Fox photo)
   If you go:
   The drive along California's Highway 1 south from San Francisco to Morro Bay is an easy one-day trip packed with "watchable" wildlife sightings.
   This 250-mile trip offers ocean and mountain vistas as it skirts the scenic Pacific Ocean.
   The Travel and Tourism Commission offers the free Best of California Drives Guidebook and trip planning assistance at 1-800-862-2543;
   For controlled animal sightings, the Monterey Bay Aquarium (831-648-4888; has exhibits on otters and a young white shark.
   Starting in San Francisco, the Fairmont hotel (1-800-257-7544; has a bed-and-breakfast package available year-round.
   At journey's end in Morro Bay, the Embarcadero Inn (1-888-223-5777; is a seaside setting with spacious rooms and balconies. Ecological tours, birdwatching, surfing and kayaking excursions are available.
   Inside Morro Bay State Park is the Inn at Morro Bay (; 1-800-321-9566), a coastal hideaway resort with its Orchid Restaurant for fine dining while watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.


This feature was originally written for distribution by the Canadian Press newswire.

Jim Fox is a freelance writer who can be reached at