Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

More at Moss Landing

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More at Moss Landing, CA
September 2019

If you’ve you been following my blog, then you’re already familiar with Moss Landing. It sits in the middle of the great crescent of Monterey Bay with Santa Cruz at the top and Monterey at the bottom. The harbor at Moss Landing is a draw for many coastal creatures: birds, sea otters, sea lions and seals. Even though it is busy with human activity it’s a place where you are almost guaranteed to see wildlife.

Chris was scheduled for surgery and we wanted a one night getaway before then. In the center of the crowded harbor is a KOA RV park. We’d talked many times about staying there but never had. I was excited to have the extra time to wander the harbor with my cameras. Usually I visit Moss Landing for only 2 to 3 hours stints. (This post actually includes photos from my most recent shorter visit as well as the overnight.)

The RV park was nothing special and was expensive by our standards but it worked well for us anyway. We could walk to the beach (Salinas River State Beach) and the harbor channel. We could also walk to several restaurants. We enjoyed a better-than-average Mexican dinner at the Haute Enchilada and a better-than-average Thai lunch at the Lemongrass Seafood Bar and Grill. We could even walk to a small museum and store devoted to Shakespeare. What more do you need?

As I said, Moss Landing is a busy place, not like our usual preferred camping locations. It has commercial fishing, recreational fishing, whale watching excursions, sailboats, marine supply businesses, restaurants, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the nearby Highway One. And let’s not forget the huge powerplant that allows you to locate Moss Landing from a distance by its two towering smokestacks. Even during the night there was traffic on the highway, people coming and going in the harbor and groups of sea lions erupting into excited barking.

Highlights:
• Next to us at our campsite was a pristine late 60’s VW bus. Bright orange without a dent or speck of dirt anywhere. The 60s live on in California.

• During a previous visit to Moss Landing I discovered several Monterey cypresses where egrets and herons like to roost. These trees were an easy hike from our campsite and I visited them several times a day.

• In the low light of dusk, two otters were singlehandedly ridding the docks of their accumulated mussels. One otter took a large shell and whacked it against a cement piling, essentially using the dock structure as a tool to open the mollusk.

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

 

This gallery contains 57 photos

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

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

Snow!

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Snow!
February 5, 2019

Snow was predicted for last night above 1000 ft. in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Our house is at 1400 ft. so I woke up excited this morning to see what had fallen during the night. We only get snow here about every 5-10 years so this is a special event; the higher elevations have it a little more frequently.

There was a teensy bit of snow on our cars and in small patches on the ground. However, since the top of our mountain is at 2500 ft., I knew there would be more up there. I drove the two miles up Alba Road to Empire Grade in my trusty Subaru. Yes, it was a winter wonderland! There was only about an inch or so, but enough to turn the redwood forest into a beautiful lacy filigree.

Alba Road is not built for snow and ice; it is narrow, steep, winding, with drop-offs and no guard rails. And people here don’t know how to drive on snow and ice. I parked at the intersection and wandered a bit. A little Kia was parked behind me, also taking photos. When they tried to leave, their wheels just spun. I flexed my muscles getting ready to help push them out when they finally got traction and left.

I also watched several cars make the turn from Alba to Empire Grade a little too fast, fishtailing their way down the road, barely in control. One ignorant lad actually gunned the accelerator when reaching Empire Grade, causing an impressive sideways slide and coming to an eventual stop facing the wrong direction. There are no such things as snow tires or snow plows here. This reminded me of being in Amherst MA during the first fall snowfall when all the new foreign students at the University, who have never seen snow, try to drive.

It was gorgeous driving home: sun, snow, fog, dripping trees and god rays, all mixed together. After some breakfast (winter weather, makes you hungry!) I walked up and down the same two miles taking more photos. Better take advantage of this now; it will likely be another 5-10 years for the next opportunity.

I have always been a snow lover (except for the part when it’s all over the cars, roads, sidewalks, etc. And when it turns into ice.) Having snow today was like a visit from a dear old friend. One that leaves you with joy and inspiration before disappearing.

BTW, I did all of that while still in my pajamas. When there is SNOW, who has time to get dressed?

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 20 photos

The Mendonoma Coast

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I am in Gualala writing this. After the coming week here I will no doubt have a slew of photos to share. This post includes some of the backlog of images from previous trips in September and November.

The term “Mendonoma” is the marriage of Mendocino and Sonoma counties; together they possess a long stretch of stunning seascapes. I am guessing this word was thought up as a publicity gimmick for tourism but it makes sense to pair these counties since they share a similar geography. On our regular trips to Gualala we travel Highway One from Bodega Bay in Sonoma through Jenner to Gualala which sits on the county line between the two. While here, we often take trips north to beaches or towns such as Bowling Ball Beach, Point Arena and the town of Mendocino. So the so-called Mendonoma Coast is our regular playground.

The most exciting event was when gray whales came into Gualala Bay in September and swam by the cliffs just below us. We happened to be home and I had my tripod and camera already set up on the deck. It was thrilling to watch them spout and swim from from the comfort of the house. Whale photographs, unless the beasts are breaching or diving are not very interesting (gray humps) but I included several to prove how close they were.

The next most exciting experience was successfully taking long exposure photographs of the Milky Way (and Mars). These were taken from a different deck on the house. The camera is much more sensitive than the naked eye so many, many more more stars appear in the photograph than we can actually see. I am gradually learning to become better at astrophotography and will continue to experiment.

Some of the birds included – the peregrine falcon, common mergansers, and green heron – were photographed during a kayak trip on the Gualala River. On one side of the river is Sonoma County and on the other, Mendocino, so this was a true Mendonoma experience. It was windy that day, as it had been all week. You can see the fluffing up of the falcon feathers from the stiff breeze in the tall tree. The mergansers were hunkered down to withstand the wind. Fortunately, I didn’t have to kayak far inland to be out of the coastal breeze (otherwise kayaking would have been a nightmare.) When I saw the green heron, the air was light.

There is a bald eagle pair who live in the Gualala area. The photograph included appears to be in a wild and remote place but it was actually only a block from “downtown” Gualala.

A few words about beach hoppers, Megalorchestia corniculata. Although they are common they are nocturnal so you don’t usually see them. I got to Bowling Ball Beach one morning before the sun had risen over the cliffs and these little beach-dwelling shrimp-relatives were busy sparring with each other and going in and out of their burrows. They would soon disappear for the day. Their bodies are about an inch long.

I am experimenting with black and white photography and have included a few examples here. This opens up a whole new vision for places and subjects I’ve photographed many times before.

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 38 photos

Monarchs Bring Both Beauty and Sadness

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Monarchs Bring Both Beauty and Sadness

The over-wintering monarch butterflies this year are split between Natural Bridges and Lighthouse Field State Parks. My favorite spot is Lighthouse Field because it is easier to access and there are fewer people. Almost none, as a matter of fact. I am usually alone with my cameras, tripod, large trees and a few clumps of amassed monarchs dangling from eucalyptus or cedars branches.

Natural Bridges is the spot tourists, large families and busloads of children go to find butterflies. My first search for monarchs this year was on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Only a few butterflies were at the park but there plenty of people! I discovered that visiting the monarchs on Thanksgiving weekend has become a local family tradition. Turkey, pumpkin pie and monarchs.

An article about the decline of monarchs in Santa Cruz appeared recently in The Guardian (yes, the British daily newspaper.) They claim there is a 97% drop in the number of monarchs. I have certainly noticed fewer and fewer each year. It is another disturbing sign of climate change and loss of habitat. Read for more information:
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/dec/07/its-a-sad-reality-a-troubling-trend-sees-a-97-decline-in-monarch-butterflies

The following article just came out in National Geographic:
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2018/12/monarch-butterflies-risk-extinction-climate-change/

Lighthouse Field State Park is across from the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum and Steamer Lane, the most famous surfing spot in Santa Cruz. After photographing the butterflies, I usually walk to the ocean cliff edge and watch the congregation of surfers jostling for the best positions to catch the next big wave.

See previous posts on over-wintering monarchs:
https://carlabrennan.com/2018/02/06/vitamin-sea-and-butterflies-in-february/
https://carlabrennan.com/2016/11/07/the-butterflies-are-back/

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 18 photos