Harbor Seals At Pescadero State Beach

A harbor seal looks toward the beach from an offshore rock outcropping, Pescadero State Beach, California.

I always enjoy photo locations that offer more than one possibility for a successful photo. Such was the case on a recent morning I spent at Pescadero State Beach for a sunrise landscape shoot. Being along the coast, I knew that chances for wildlife were high, and so I lugged my wildlife/bird lens along with me, even though I was hoping for a magical coastal sunrise shot.

Arriving about 45 minutes before dawn, I hiked up to a vantage point overlooking sea stacks just offshore. By shooting due south, I was hoping to get some wave action around the stacks, with a colorful backdrop of winter sunrise colors. Unfortunately, the weather conditions were not with me, and I got a dull glow to the east and suddenly it was daytime. No sunrise colors, no landscape keepers, nothing.

Harbor seals compete for lounging space on an offshore rock, Pescadero State Beach, California.
Harbor seals compete for lounging space on an offshore rock, Pescadero State Beach, California.

As it got lighter, I scanned the offshore rocks and saw several groups of harbor seals clustered away from the roaring ocean. Getting these guys on camera was only a quick walk back to the car to retrieve my wildlife gear. Once re-set up, I waited for another 15 minutes until it got light enough to really start in earnest.

A harbor seal looks toward the beach from an offshore rock outcropping, Pescadero State Beach, California.
A harbor seal looks toward the beach from an offshore rock outcropping, Pescadero State Beach, California.

Fifteen minutes later I was done and moved on to look for interesting coastal birds. As it was a quiet morning, I soon moved on to more important activities, namely breakfast!

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

Creature From The Deep

A harbor seal pops its head above water as the sun sets behind it, Redwood Shores, San Francisco Bay
A harbor seal pops its head above water as the sun sets behind it, Redwood Shores, San Francisco Bay

I often photograph out in Redwood Shores, CA, a town within Redwood City that juts out into the San Francisco Bay. It is a suburb consisting of homes and townhouses built around a network of man-made water channels, offering many backyards direct water access. All that water also attracts a great variety of birds.

A little while ago I was tracking a bird down at the edge of one of the water channels. I was about ten feet below the bay trail, out of sight of any passerbys. As I was looking through my lens, I heard a soft “sploosh” very close to me. I could tell something big had disturbed the water to my left. At first I though that maybe someone was throwing rocks into the channel, but then I realized the sound was too gentle to have been caused by a rock. I looked up and scanned the water, but all I saw were concentric rings emanating from a spot about fifteen feet from shore.

Then, suddenly a large head emerged not far from that spot – big eyes staring into mine.

With eyes and nose just above water, a harbor seal cruises through the still waters of a slough, Redwood Shores, San Francisco Bay
With eyes and nose just above water, a harbor seal cruises through the still waters of a slough, Redwood Shores, San Francisco Bay

I was surprised to see a harbor seal pop up and investigate me. We sat there for a while, just looking at each other as the sun set and everything fell silent. He obliged while I swung my camera around to photograph him. Then he submerged and over the next ten or fifteen minutes, he appeared at various distances, each time looking in my direction.

A curious harbor seal emerges from the water enough to watch the shore of a small slough, Redwood Shores, San Francisco Bay
A curious harbor seal emerges from the water enough to watch the shore of a small slough, Redwood Shores, San Francisco Bay

Afterward, I learned that he was an off and on regular in this neighborhood. Apparently he got through one or more water control gates that lead out into the bay. Either he is very smart and can return to these channels at will, or he is stuck here, fishing the shallow channels. Whatever the case, he seems to be thriving. I have seen him since on several other occasions (assuming it is the same harbor seal of course). The next time I see a large mysterious shadow passing just below the surface of the water, I’ll know who it is.

Moss Landing Harbor

A sea otter floats through the water, taking a break
A sea otter floats through the water, taking a break. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +2/3: 1/500 sec. at f/8

Recently I spent a morning photographing the sea life in Moss Landing, California. The harbor at Moss Landing boasts a great variety of sea birds and mammals, and is favorite spot for many sea otters. I woke early and arrived at the harbor at dawn, hoping to catch some of the wildlife in early morning light. Most of the usual suspects were there, including the common loon.

A common loon swims alone through deep water.
A common loon swims alone through deep water. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 800. Evaluative metering +2/3: 1/1600 sec. at f/7.1

Also seen cruising around the harbor, occasionally diving for food were several surf scoters. A male, resplendent with his colorful beak came close, probably to see if I was one of those fishermen who might have some bait to spare.

A male surf scoter swims through open water
A male surf scoter swims through open water. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 640. Evaluative metering 0 EV: 1/1000 sec. at f/7.1

And then of course, there were the sea otters, probably the most popular attraction at the harbor. I saw about twenty to thirty of them all floating together, either diving and eating, playfully wresting each other in the water, or just floating on their backs, taking a bit of a nap. One otter in particular had an entertaining way of grooming himself. First, he would lick one paw while rubbing the back of his head with his other paw. Then he’d switch paws, slowly cleaning the back and sides of his head.

First licking one paw, and then the other, a sea otter takes turns massaging his head with each paw
First licking one paw, and then the other, a sea otter takes turns massaging his head with each paw. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 640. Evaluative metering +2/3: 1/800 sec. at f/8

After repeating this behavior for several minutes, it was time for the face massage. Opening his mouth, he’d lightly rub his cheeks in small circles. After a while, he really got into what he was doing, opening and closing his mouth and sticking out his tongue occasionally. Abruptly he stopped, and went back to licking his paws and cleaning his head.

A sea otter rubs its face on each side of its mouth, giving itself a gentle massage
A sea otter rubs its face on each side of its mouth, giving itself a gentle massage. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 640. Evaluative metering 0 EV: 1/1600 sec. at f/8

Sea lions and harbor seals were also in attendance at the harbor. Most of the sea lions were crowded on a pier waiting for fishing boats to return and share their left-overs. Unfortunately, the time of day did not cooperate with the only angle of approach I had, and all of my photos were severely back lit. The harbor seals however were busy traveling to and fro, so I had better opportunities with them.

A harbor seal swims just under the surface of the water, head just peeking out
A harbor seal swims just under the surface of the water, head just peeking out. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 640. Evaluative metering -1/3: 1/800 sec. at f/8

As the morning stretched on, more tourists arrived and the harbor started to get crowded. I was happy to have woken early and arrived at dawn, giving me plenty of time in relative solitude with the animals. Pretty soon it was time to leave. The sun was high overhead, most of the wildlife had scattered, and the otters had settled in for a nice long lazy day in the waves.

With arms folded behind its head a floating sea otter lets out a huge yawn
With arms folded behind its head a floating sea otter lets out a huge yawn. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +2/3: 1/1000 sec. at f/8

Salt Point State Park

Wind and water sculpted sandstone creates an alien landscape along the headlands of Salt Point State Park, California

Last week I spent a few days at Salt Point State Park, along the California coast just north of Jenner. The state park encompasses over six miles of shoreline, as well as miles of interior trails through coastal forest. This portion of the coast is one of the most dynamic in the state, made so by acres of sandstone, shaped over time by the strong waves and stronger wind, creating an alien landscape of stone and water.

Although the sky was clear and the sun was out, the temperature never topped 60 degrees. Windy conditions persuaded most people to stay away, entrusting the entire length of coastline to me alone. By early evening, the wind really picked up with gusts between 30 – 40 mph. I had a hard enough time just staying on my feet much less keeping my tripod steady. The wind was only outdone by the strength of the massive waves breaking against the rocky shore.

Waves crash against sandstone headlands, Salt Point State Park, California
A wave blasts a sandstone point as the ocean's energy turns water into a milky froth, Salt Point State Park, California

In the mornings, the wind from the night before had subsided, but the ten to fifteen foot waves were no less fierce.

Huge waves crash over offshore sea stacks, Salt Point State Park, California

The variety of the landscape was impressive. I found myself walking through fields of recently bloomed wildflowers, back-dropped by sheer cliffs plunging to an azure ocean. At low tide, pools appeared among newly uncovered rock, offering a glimpse into the lives of the sea dwellers who live there.

Wildflowers adorn the coastline of Salt Point State Park
Tidepools adorn sculpted sandstone headlands, Salt Point State Park, California

The park was home to a variety of wildlife, from song and shore birds to seals, lizards, and an abundance of healthy looking deer. Ultimately it was a brief few days, but a welcome respite from the bustle of the Bay Area. There was much more to see at Salt Point than time allowed, and I know I’ll be going back there in the future.

A harbor seal clings to an offshore rock as waves splash around it, Salt Point State Park, California
A white-crowned sparrow perches in morning light, Salt Point State Park, California
A white-crowned sparrow forages through fields of wildflowers, Salt Point State Park, California