Point Lobos—Dramatic Meeting of Land and Water
NOT just dramatic. At times this meeting of land and water at Point Lobos is downright violent! When it’s high tide and strong winds blow in off the ocean, giant waves build up and come rolling in for a crash landing against rocky cliffs. With a resounding boom, they shoot 40 or 50 feet [12-15 m] into the air. When this happens, visitors hurry out to Sea Lion Point to see the show. They line up as close as they dare, gasping in awe as each wave slams into the cliff. Fascinated by this display of power as tons of water are hurled skyward, they ignore the showers of spray that sweep over them. As long as the waves are wild, the audience is reluctant to leave.
But leave they must, for there is much more to see at Point Lobos. Its attractions are legion, which is one of the reasons the State of California bought it in 1933 and made it a state reserve. The other reason, the primary one, was to preserve the lovely Monterey cypress. It grows naturally only on Point Lobos and nearby Monterey Peninsula. Along the edge of these bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Monterey cypress is now making its last stand.
Before becoming a state reserve, Point Lobos had had a colorful history. For centuries Indians collected shellfish and camped on its headlands. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, it became a pasture for livestock. The Portuguese had a whaling station there from 1861 to 1884. After that, Japanese fishermen became involved in an abalone cannery that shipped hundreds of thousands of abalones to the Orient. Ownership of the land changed frequently—once, we are told, during a card game.
Entry to Point Lobos State Reserve is from Pacific Coast Highway 1, ten miles [16 km] south of Monterey, three miles [5 km] below Carmel. Roads in the reserve are few. They lead to three main parking areas, and from there trails fan out to wind through pine woods and cypress groves. One trail six miles [10 km] long follows the coastline of the reserve, alternately hugging the edge of high bluffs to give spectacular views of a churning sea far below, and then descending to the water’s edge to put you by tide pools packed with life—sea anemones, urchins, crabs, starfish, shellfish, green and red algae, and many other creatures. Pause and kneel to peer into these fascinating little rock-bound worlds. But be alert! Sneaky waves love to give you a soaking!
Walking along the trail en route to Bird Island, look down on the jade-green waters of China Cove, nestled below like a gemstone surrounded by steep cliffs. Waves lazily plop up on the small sandy beach at one end, where waders and swimmers enjoy the chilly water and later bask in the warm sun of the sheltered beach. Others also relish this luxury—harbor seals sprawl on the rock ledges to soak up sun.
The trail continues until you are alongside Bird Island, where seabirds gather by the hundreds. When it is nesting time, the cormorants are busy flying in with strands of seaweed swinging from their beaks, building nests so close together you’d think they were developers jamming in houses. Pelicans come and go on their fishing forays, diving into the sea when they see their dinner swimming below. Seagulls soar and wheel in the wind so gloriously free that you get jealous because you’re earthbound.
Cypress Grove Trail, winding through one of the two remaining naturally growing stands of Monterey cypress on earth, is the favorite of many visitors. From its bluffs, spectacular seascapes are visible. Red algae cover rocks and tree trunks exposed to the moist sea air. Lace lichen drapes from the boughs of pine and cypress. In the woods, black-tailed deer may be seen—often mothers with fawns browsing on the shrubbery. From the tip of this peninsula, 40-ton gray whales may be seen spouting and sometimes breaching as they pass Point Lobos on their ten-thousand-mile [16,000 km] round-trip migration to Baja California in December and January to mate and give birth, returning to the Bering Sea in March and April for feeding.
The Sea Otters
But the most popular animals are not these seagoing behemoths traveling offshore. The question the rangers hear most is: “Where are the sea otters?” They are usually among the strands of floating kelp in the sheltered coves. Visitors with binoculars scan these areas to spot them, then watch them dive for their dinner. On the menu are such delicacies as clams, crabs, mussels, squid, octopuses, abalones, and sea urchins. Their table is a rock they put on their chest, against which they bang their shellfish entrées to get at the meat inside. If not dining, they may be sleeping, wrapped in kelp to keep from drifting. Or there may be a mother with a baby on her chest, grooming or feeding it. The baby is born in the water, lives in the water, yet has to learn to swim. But it cannot drown—baby sea otters have a natural buoyancy.
The chocolate-brown fur of the sea otter—often gray or white around the head in adults—is fine and thick. At the information station near Sea Lion Point, there is a sea otter pelt. Run your fingers through it. Feel its silky softness. It is this superfine fur that almost brought the otter to extinction. Twice as dense as that of the fur seal, his fur has 650,000 hairs per square inch [100,000 per sq cm], some 800 million in all. The otter does not, however, keep warm from the fur alone. It spends long hours grooming to trap air in its fur, and it is this air that insulates the otter’s skin from the cold water. Unique, gentle, nonaggressive—no wonder the sea otter is the favorite of visitors!
The Underwater Reserve
These trails give you access to the 554 acres [224 ha] of Point Lobos. But these acres are not all of Point Lobos State Reserve. They are not even half of it. Seven hundred and fifty acres [300 ha] are underwater. Take the road that branches off to the Whalers Cove parking area, where you will very likely see divers in wet suits and scuba gear entering the first underwater reserve in the United States. Established in 1960, it is one of the richest underwater habitats in California and is fully protected by state law. Unfortunately, the wonders of this underwater world are not for you—unless you are certified to don a wet suit and scuba gear to explore its depths.
A folder given to you at the entrance of the reserve hints at what you are missing: “In the subdued light of the 100-foot-high [30 m] kelp forests, animals without backbones and plants without roots create a world of vibrant color. Lingcod, cabezone and rockfish swim in and out of view. The unexpected appearance of a seal, an otter, or a whale quickens the heart.” One inhabitant of these depths that might make your heart skip a beat is the world’s largest starfish, the bat star [Pycnopodia], as large as four feet [1.2 m] across! Just as you have a trail guide when you walk the paths of the land areas of Point Lobos, divers have a submersible book with 38 colored photos to identify the marine life.
Point Lobos is a place for quiet reflection. With its more than 300 plant species and 250 bird and animal species, there’s no shortage of material: long strands of brown kelp curving gracefully over the surface of the sea in Bluefish Cove. Lilacs adding their fragrance to the salty sea air. Sage leaves crushed between your fingers releasing their pungent aromas. Shun doing this with the shiny leaves of the poison oak that lines the trails. Why is poison oak left here? It’s the habitat that suits small birds and animals. Lobos is their home, not ours.
The plaintive song of the white-crowned sparrow, softly repeated as it sits on the topmost twig of a sagebrush. The high-pitched cry of the black oystercatcher as it scampers over shoreline rocks, its bright red beak flashing in the sun. On the rocky offshore islands, the barking of sea lions sets up a din not to be ignored. And there’s always the tool-using sea otter’s whacking of shells on the rock on its chest. And savor again the muted sounds of a quiet surf or its ragings among the rocks when its mood is wild.
It’s a place for contemplation. Breathe deeply of the sea breezes. Walk the trails slowly. Take the time to absorb the atmosphere. Store up memories. Soak up its spirit.
You may dismiss as extravagant praise the description of Point Lobos by landscape artist Francis McComas as “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” But after a few days of walking its trails, breathing deeply of its salty sea air, listening to its sounds, seeing its sights, absorbing the overall serenity of its pristine beauty, you may not think his praise quite so extravagant.
Undeniably, Point Lobos is a tonic for jangled nerves, a soothing balm for the spirit, a tribute to the artistry of its Maker, Jehovah God.
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
Top Left: The Pinnacle
Top Right: Southern sea otter
Center Left: The jade-green waters of China Cove
Center Right: Half-moon fish in the kelp forest
Bottom Right: Wind and water have left their etchings in sandstone