Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

The Age of Aquariums

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The Age of Aquariums
July 2019

It is the dawning of the age of aquariums for me because, as a Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) member, I can go whenever I want for free. My last trip was in July with my visiting niece, Eliza.

The aquarium was busy but not overcrowded. We started, as I usually do, with the jellies and then moved on to the gigantic open sea tank. That was followed by the cephalopods, seabirds, sea otters, the Baja exhibit, the kelp forest and on and on. We closed the place out at 6:30 PM. Even though this wasn’t primarily a photography visit, I, of course, took lots of photographs.

Here are some of the highlights:
As we stood in front of the open sea tank, lulled into a pleasant stupor from the darkness and soothing ambient music, a cross made of pipe was lowered into the water from above. A docent standing nearby explained that it was a signal for one of the tank’s residents that they were about to be fed. Sure enough, the giant sunfish – a favorite of mine – slowly made its way toward the cross, mouth agape. A disembodied gloved hand dipped into the water holding some gelatinous goop and the sunfish gobbled it up. Apparently, they had to get rid of one sunfish because it couldn’t learn this Pavlovian trick – not the smartest fish in the sea.

We were disappointed to not see the sea turtles; they were having a “spa” day as they apparently do every Thursday. Yes, they call it that. They are taken to their own private tank on the roof where they get to sunbathe and eat special food.

As we arrived at the seabird exhibit they were also being fed. A MBA employee threw handfuls of anchovies into the water. Puffins, oystercatchers and murres swam like torpedoes, quickly gathering their meal in their beaks.

At the squid tank, most of them had already eaten, but one, which appeared to be a large male, still had a goldfish in his tentacles. He proceeded to play with the fish for quite a while, like a cat does with a mouse.

We watched sea otters play with fake kelp, sharks swim circles in the kelp forest, a giant Pacific octopus fully visible in its dark tank, lounging penguins and many versions of Dory and Nemo in the reef display.

With each visit there is something new to see as well as an opportunity to visit old friends.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Contact Carla Brennan: brennan.carla@gmail.com

 

This gallery contains 34 photos

Whale Tails and Sea Lions

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Whale Tails and Sea Lions
July 2019, Monterey Bay, CA

The day was overcast and foggy. The blues of the sky and sea had vanished, rendering everything in shades of black-and-white. Eliza and I were going whale watching aboard the Goddess Fantasy from Moss Landing. I splurged and paid an extra fee to get us “VIP” seating on the upper deck. I figured it would be easier to move from port to starboard to stern as we tracked the whale sightings. It would also give me a better perspective for photography. It was definitely worth it.

In the harbor, sea lions lounged on various docks, weighing them down into the water. Signs warned to beware of “vicious sea lions.” We watched a sailor aim a hose at a sea lion that was positioned between him and his boat. I would have thought the sea lion would have enjoyed the shower but it slid into the sea. Cormorants greeted us at the signs welcoming boaters.

Just a little ways into the Bay we sighted a single humpback whale lunge feeding, its large knobby head with mouth agape burst through the water. We kept going to an area where a small group of humpbacks had been seen. What made this whale watch special – that is, seeing something new – was the large rafts (groups) of sea lions that were swimming along side the whales. These whales were all dive fishing which means we mostly only saw spouting, arching backs and diving tails. Few heads emerged and there was no breaching. But we were interested to see them rise and dive amid the swimming sea lions as if they were all enjoying the day together.

Several times the sea lions swam quickly, leaping out of the water in quick synchronous graceful arcs called “porpoising.” I tried to photograph this but failed to capture it.

After the whale watch we went to Moss Landing State Beach and watched the sea otters.

A couple weeks later a photo from Monterey Bay of a humpback whale that accidentally scooped up a sea lion while lunge feeding went viral. This would have been taken about the same time we were there. All the experts claimed how unusual it was to see this. But after watching how closely the humpbacks and sea lions fished together, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/07/humpback-whale-sea-lion-mouth-photo/

Please do not use any photographs without permission. Contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com

 

This gallery contains 33 photos

Elephant Seals Rough-housing!

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Elephant Seals Rough-housing!
Pescadero, CA
7/22/19

Eliza (my niece) and I went to Ano Nuevo State Park, Pescadero, CA, to check on any elephant seals that might be there. July is when the males arrive onshore to molt. The females are currently feeding far out to sea; they molt in the spring.

I warned Eliza that all we might see were big inert lumps of furry blubber lying on the beach. Like sacks of sand. Not very exciting really. But we were pleasantly surprised to find plenty of action. Juvenile and mature males were engaged in play fighting. Quite entertaining! There were brawls both in and out of the water with lots of strange guttural gurgles, grunts and groans. With their fur coming off, some of the molting seals looked like characters from “The Walking Dead.” Hollywood make-up artists take note.

Observe the difference in the size of their noses. For elephant seals, size matters when it comes to their schnoz. During breeding season in the fall, the fighting will no longer be play and will draw blood as they fight over who gets to rule the harem.

On our way out to see the seals (a 1.5 mile hike), a docent at the small “staging area” cabin pointed out several mud-constructed cliff swallows nests. Parents were flying back and forth with insect meals for the growing chicks. We also witnessed a mother California quail with her large brood of chicks crossing the trail in front of us. At first we saw 2 or 3 babies, then 6 or 7, then 9, 10, 11! A male, possible the father of this group, was acting as sentry atop a bush, looking for predators. Fortunately, we didn’t qualify. There was also constant bird traffic traveling between the small fresh water pond and the ocean. Streams of brown pelican flew overhead. The most unusual sighting was a San Francisco garter snake, retracting into the grassy meadow, with a mouse in its mouth!

 

This gallery contains 26 photos

The Dream of Montana

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The Dream of Montana
May 2019

It is an odd, if common, experience to hop on a plane and be suddenly deposited in a different environment. These airplane trips feel like time travel or like being beamed somewhere, Star Trek-style, creating a strange disruption in my normal sense of continuity. Flying is a slow version of being de-materializing in one place and re-materializing in another. It seemed as if part of me remained in California, asleep, awaiting my return from a dream.

The Montana dream happened because I was attending a meditation retreat. The unfamiliar beauty of the place along with days of silence and the hours of meditation contributed to the dream-like feeling. We met at a Lutheran camp on the shores of Flathead Lake, held in the arms of the surrounding forests and lapping waters.

Before arriving at the camp, I met up with three others in Kalispell for a ride to the retreat. The weather was cool, rain falling unpredictably, randomly. Clouds hung low as if becoming too heavy to float. We first visited a Tibetan Buddhist center called “Garden of a 1,000 Buddhas.” It had a great mandala garden with a Tara statue at the center. Spokes radiated outward lined with identical white Buddhas side by side. The enclosing wall was topped with small stupas, each with a Tara inside, perhaps a thousand of them as well. This was the dream, the vision, of a Tibetan lama, come to realization in this wide grassy valley in a tiny town in remote northern Montana. (As lovely as this was, I prefer the shrine of Wild Nature – snow covered peaks, for example.)

Our cabin at the retreat (mine and two other women) was perched on a bluff facing south across the lake. A large picture window and outside benches drew us back again and again to the spacious view. It was pure luck that I had signed up for this particular cabin, the one with the most spectacular vista.

Each day during breaks between the scheduled sessions, I wandered the property, exploring the aromatic Douglas fir and pine woods with my senses and camera. I was still on the hunt for spring wildflowers, still inspired by the abundant blooms recently seen in California. There were arrowleaf balsamroot, arnica, Oregon grape, penstemon, paintbrush and others adorning the forest floor.

Gradually smoke from wildfires in Alberta made the features hazy, dissolving mountains and lake into something more like the sky, something more like a dream.

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

This gallery contains 45 photos

Pinnacles National Park: California Wildflowers and Condors

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Pinnacles National Park: California Wildflowers and Condors
April 29-May 2, 2019

After witnessing the splendor of Carrizo Plain National Monument’s superbloom in March, I was determined to get back to enjoy more flowers. But by the time I had a few days available to make the trip, the superbloom had passed. I will have to wait until the next one, which could be next year or in 10 years or ?

Fortunately, the regular spring wildflower season wasn’t over and I could go somewhere closer to home to find them, possibly Pinnacles National Park, Henry Coe State Park or Mercey Hot Springs. These are not places of superblooms but good choices for reliable yearly wildflowers. I decided on Pinnacles, only two hours away. I’d been there once before on an unpleasantly crowded weekend. This trip, I was arriving on a Monday. Pinnacles is also home to condors, a bird I’ve long wanted to see.

Arriving without a reservation, I was still able to find a good campsite, #59. It was spacious, shaded by oaks, with a small stream running through it. California quail, acorn woodpeckers, juncos, scrub jays, spotted towhees, gray squirrels and ground squirrels made frequent visits. After one hike, I sat quietly for a long time, watching the various animals come and go, sometimes photographing them. On the last night, raccoons decorated my car with muddy footprints. The only downside to this spot was that it was near group campsites where boisterous excitable teenagers had gathered for an outdoor adventure.

My first full day was cool and cloudy, perfect for hiking and photographing flowers. After getting a suggestion from a park ranger, I hiked five miles round-trip on the Old Pinnacles Trail. It was a leg punishing day, not because the trail was long or steep but because photographing flowers meant I was constantly doing deep knee bends while caring weights (cameras, telephoto lens, water, lunch). It was six hours of walk 15 feet, deep knee bend, walk 15 feet, deep knee bend, walk 15 feet, deep knee bend.

The next day I went on a shorter, steeper hike, the Condor Gulch Trail from the trailhead to the Overlook, only two miles round-trip. At the Overlook I met a couple from Walnut Creek and a young American woman living in Tel Aviv. We ate lunch together, sharing stories about nature and birds. (It turns out that Israel is a great birding destination.) The couple had seen condors the evening before from the campground and explained where to meet at sunset to see them again.

After lunch I meandered a little farther on the trail, admiring in silence the towering cliffs and volcanic rock formations. Turkey vultures flew in and out of view above the tallest pinnacles. Then I saw it. A soaring bird much larger than the vultures with white on its underside. A condor! It only appeared for a few seconds. I grabbed my bridge camera with its 600mm zoom (my good telephoto lens was still in my pack.) It appeared again for a few seconds and I took some quick, what I call, panic shots. It disappeared again. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. My good camera poised for action. Eventually I gave up and put the camera down to pack up for the hike home. At that moment two condors soared right overhead, like low-flying aircraft, darkening the sky with their nearly ten foot wingspan.

There are only 160 condors in all of California and about 27 are in Pinnacles. As you probably know, during the 20th century, their population was decimated by poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The few remaining condors were captured and became a part of a captive breeding project. In the 1990’s, they began to be introduced back into the wild.

Back at the campground that evening, I joined others at sunset to watch the arrival of condors taking advantage of the last updrafts from the sun’s dwindling heat. Above the hill behind the campground they soared acrobatically, being lit by the sun’s last rays.

This gallery contains 75 photos

Guatemala: Tikal National Park

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Guatemala: Tikal National Park
January 2019

Life has carried me away the last few months, but now, at last, I am back reviewing my photos and remembrances from my trip to Central America in January 2019.

From the San Ignacio area of Belize we crossed into Guatemala to visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal.

The border crossing was our first challenge. Traveling in a car rented from Belize triggered a series of bureaucratic reactions from the Guatemalan side. Standing in numerous lines, often repeatedly, forms had to be presented, often repeatedly. Money was changed and fees paid. The process was mysterious and convoluted. A young man with basic English attached himself to us, offering to guide us through the process, expecting, or at least hoping for, a tip at the end (which he got). This type of money-making arrangement is found around the world in developing countries. In his New York baseball cap he effectively shepherded us through the chain of command. My niece who speaks fluent Spanish also interceded. It was unnerving to see Guatemalan soldiers in spiffy camouflage uniforms with large automatic weapons guarding the border.

On the road again we had 80 miles to Tikal National Park. The drive was scenic, passing lush farmland and forests, small villages, and the narrow east end of Lago Peten Itza.

We encountered more confusion when we reached the Park entrance. They only wanted Guatemalan money and we hadn’t changed enough cash. We discovered that when changing or using US dollars, they will only take large bills, $20 or more, in absolutely mint condition. The slightest mark or tear would disqualify the exchange.

A tour guide, Jose, hoping to be hired, talked to my sister while the rest of us tried to figure out how to pay our entrance fee. Eventually, we made it through. We found out from Jose that a general strike had been called for the next day to protest the president of Guatemala’s decision to kick UN representatives out of the country. The UN was investigating governmental corruption. All the roads might be closed and we could be trapped in Guatemala. Fortunately the roads stayed open and we made it back, without incident, to Belize the next day.

We had reservations at the Jungle Lodge in the National Park. Our casita was comfortable and attractive. The open air restaurant at the Lodge was surrounded by large flowering ginger plants and the jungle fragrances and sounds were intoxicating. As we checked in I saw a social flycatcher and a gray-necked wood rail, both birds I had never seen before. During a quick trip to the swimming pool I spotted my first spider monkey, traveling from branch to branch in the tall trees. From the front desk, we hired a guide, another Jose but much younger, to take us on a late afternoon tour of the ruins. His English was excellent and we discovered he had spent a few years in western Pennsylvania, not far from where my sister and I had grown up.

Walking the main trail through the jungle we were happy with anticipation, excited to reach the ancient remains of the large and sophisticated Mayan culture. I had seen Aztec pyramids in Mexico but had never been at a Mayan site before. Our first stop was the Great Plaza, with its temples, palace ruins, altars, ball courts and acropolis. Climbing the stairs to a viewing ledge at Temple II, we peered across the Plaza to Temple I.

Looking down I tried to imagine what life would have looked like, a dreamlike world of color and costume. Here there would have been processions of kings and queens, complete with gold and jade jewelry, elaborate ornamentation and flowing feathers. Tournaments of a sacred ballgame were often held near Temple I, some games ending in bloody human sacrifice. The architecture would have been covered in sculptures depicting their complex mythology. Some buildings – entire temples – were painted red. In the hubbub of daily life, one would have seen children playing while merchants, artists, farmers, and toolsmiths displayed their wares.

The Great Plaza has a connection to the resplendent quetzal, a bird of importance to both ancient and modern Central American culture. When you clap loudly and sharply in the center of the Plaza, the echo mimics the quetzal’s call. Am interesting phenomena, but was it intentional or coincidental?

As the light diminished, coatimundis appeared, searching for any treats left behind by a full day of tourists.

The next morning we rose before dawn to meet with our first Jose, the Older, for a longer tour of the fauna and flora of the park in addition to the Mayan remains. We traveled through more areas of restored buildings, including Temple IV, the tallest still-standing structure within the entire Mayan empire. After climbing a long wooden staircase we reached a viewing platform above tree line that revealed the vast expanse of jungle broken only by the crumbling stone tops of other temples. During the height of Tikal, most of the trees between temples would not have been there, and we would have seen great causeways, ponds, smaller buildings and many splendidly dressed people.

Probably without knowing it, you have seen images of Tikal. In “Stars Wars: A New Hope,” views of Tikal were used as the site of the rebel base.

You might be interested in a recent NatGeo TV show called, “Lost Treasures of the Maya.” The four part series explores new discoveries of the ancient Mayan civilization revealed by LIDAR, a technology that is changing archeology around the world. By using special radar in low flying airplanes, the unknown remains of 61,000 Mayan structures can be seen through the previously impenetrable blanket of jungle vegetation. Scientists now realize that the Mayan empire was more massive than ever imagined. Even at Tikal, which has been excavated for years, new structures have been found.

Check back for the 3rd and final installment from our Central American trip: “Belize: The Ocean.”

This gallery contains 30 photos

Scenes from a Superbloom

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It rained a lot this winter. That’s what it’s supposed to do in the coastal redwood forest of Northern California near Santa Cruz. After seven years of drought, the last few years of close-to-normal precipitation have been a relief.

We don’t get superblooms here, just the expected spring flowers. Superblooms occur in arid areas that usually don’t have wet winters. I hadn’t been paying attention to the weather farther south so the news of a possible superbloom came to me late and I had to scramble to figure out how to fit in a trip. During the superbloom of 2017, Chris and I went to Carrizo Plain National Monument (CPNM). I was adamant about going again.

The deserts of Southern California, which have been in the news for their fabulous flower displays (and destructive crowds of people), are a 10-12 hour drive from here. But Carrizo Plain is a mere 4-5 hours.

We packed up the camper for a three night stay. The wildflower hotline said it was pre-peak at CPNM but I figured there would still be plenty to see. It was indeed stunning, a heavenly spectacle of color and verdancy. Yellows, followed by purples, dominated the hillsides and valley floor. Then came the oranges, blues, pinks and whites. Everything was held in a great embrace of green.

The first night we pulled off Soda Lake Road and bumped along a rough single lane dirt path into the hills where dispersed camping is allowed. We found a rise with an open view across the great plain to the Temblor Mountains to the east, with the Caliente Mountains lifting up behind us.

We saw little wildlife during this trip, only indirect evidence of it. The ground was pockmarked with the borrows of ground squirrels and other rodents with larger holes for foxes, coyotes and badgers. The holes were so numerous that walking became an obstacle course. The first evening, distracted by photography, I twisted an ankle in a dirt opening. I limped for a day or so and it is still a bit sore, two weeks later.

We saw only a few birds, mostly ravens and sage sparrows, and a couple jackrabbits. Walking with the midday sun, we kept an eye out for rattlesnakes, but none were spotted. The rodents remained invisible, even at dusk or dawn. At night I shone my flashlight across the ground, hoping to catch a busy nocturnal creature. But saw none.

We wanted to camp on the eastern side of the Monument which we had not done before, but several of the main roads across the valley plain were closed due to poor conditions. The CPNM Visitor Center directed us to cross over on Seven-Mile Road, just outside the park, to reach Elkhorn Rd. Seven-Mile Road turned out to be quite a treat on its own. The valley was covered with goldfields, hillside daisies, tidy tips and occasional phacelia.

Unbeknownst to me, this road also led to an iconic view (one I had only seen in photographs) where Highway 58 passes through the Tremblor Mountains. The hillsides glowed in gold with complementary patches of purple. Cars had pulled off the highway and lined the roads. Families trekked up a path to a fairyland of color. It was Sunday and it was crowded. After a few photographs we opted out on the hike and chose to continue south on Elkhorn to find a spot for the night.

We pulled off Elkhorn and had another vast view, this time facing west. Coyotes barked, yipped and howled at night and in the morning. Near us was a dry arroyo. I surmised this would be a good place to find flowers since it would have been wetter than the surrounding hillsides. It was indeed a wildflower haven. While the flowers in this part of the park were not so widespread to be seen from space (https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/california-super-bloom-space-trnd/index.html), they were abundant, delightful and diverse at close range. I saw varieties that were new to me such as desert candles, evening snow and blazing stars as well as familiar hillside daisies, phacelia, lupine, poppies, fiddlenecks, filaree, owl’s clover, cream cups, thistle sage and more.

The sky was sunny and cloudless the next two days. This sounds great, but it’s actually not ideal for photography. On the last morning I got up before sunrise so I could see the flowers and the terrain bathed in the subtle light of dawn.

Photographing wildflowers here also turned out to be grueling exercise for my legs. In addition to long walks, I was popping up and down constantly, doing deep knee bends, to reach the low to the ground treasures with my close-up macro lens. And I was always carrying weights, AKA two heavy cameras.

I longed to stay more days, go on more walks, find more and more unique flowers. But we had to leave. Before getting on the highway we stopped again at the pass through the Tremblor Mountains and this time I scaled the trail into the yellow rounded hills. I was alone and the view was breath-taking, pure magic.

I plan to go back but my schedule won’t allow it until the end of April. It will be post-peak then, but I imagine the late blooming varieties will still be showing off their fleeting, heart-breaking beauty.

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

 

This gallery contains 72 photos