The sweet spot of any drive up the California Coast, south of San Francisco, is the section between Morro Rock and Big Sur. Of course, that is if the purpose of the drive is the drive, if the purpose of the drive is to get north as quickly as possible, stay off of this section of road. Here the highway turns into a two lane road that follows the contours of the land. As much as anything else, driving this section of road in Michele’s car, with the top down, was the reason we had made the trip south in the first place. (BTW, all the shots from in the car are Michele’s as is the lovely bridge/surf picture near the end.
The two lane section starts after Morro Bay, goes inland for awhile, then gets serious.
But, before the road got serious, we passed the Elephant Seal rookery near the Piedras Blancas Light Station. Neither one of us even knew that the Elephant Seals had moved in south of Ano Nuevo , so we decided to stop for ten minutes. It was more than an hour later before we left and our visit to the Elephant Seals was the surprise highlight of the drive home.
It seems that a couple of Elephant Seals moved into the area in 1990, first to an offshore island and then to the beach right next to the highway, both north and south of the lighthouse. Now there are about 17,000 animals in the general area. To back up, Northern Elephant Seals were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th and early 20th Century but they are now protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and they have bounced back. With a vengeance. It is estimated that there are well over 150,000 animals breeding from Baja to Point Reyes and they take up alot of beach space.
Elephant Seals really are Seals. They are distant cousins to Raccoons, even more distant cousins to Bears, and they probably evolved from Otters. Their ancestors were land animals and the Seal side of the family, for some unfathomable reason, wandered back into the ocean sometime around 25 million years ago.
To me, that is pretty amazing and it took some drastic changes to make it happen. Not just giving up legs and feet for flippers, the problem of no fresh water in the ocean also had to be solved, and to make the changes even more improbable, the Elephant Seals have chosen a life that requires being able to stay underwater for as long as thirty minutes. They are mammals, carnivores, able to dive as deep as 5,000 feet to get food and unable to move – move for lack of a better word, they sort of half flop, half inchworm along, their body jiggling like jelly – more than a couple of hundred feet from their real home, the ocean.
At Piedras Blanca, we stand on a wooden deck just above the beach, captivated by the hundreds of huge animals just below us. As they go about their daily lives, it is hard to watch them without wondering how they can even exist.
One theory is that God made the Elephant Seal, along with all the other creatures that live in the water, on the fifth day of Creation (or, maybe, the sixth day because Elephant Seals were land animals that returned to the water, but let’s not quibble over a day). I find that hard to believe; it goes against all the evidence except the Bible (and it is pretty easy to argue against the Bible with its dubious origins, translations of translations, and its assembly by committee three hundred years after the fact).
Darwinian Evolution says that it is only a result of random change over 25 million years. I like this theory better, but I found it less satisfying than I had hoped when I went on an Evolution binge about 30 or 40 years ago. The time line is fact, or at least fits all the evidence. And the same with change; what I find hard to embrace is random. The Universe clearly has a direction, from Chaos to Order, from stray particles to atoms, from atoms to molecules. About 3,600,000,000 years ago – somehow – life came along and some molecules became cells. About 600,000,000 years ago, some of those cells became simple animals. Those simple animals became increasingly complex, filling empty econiches. Somehow those stray particles became armadillos and kale. They became sowbugs and flamingos. They became elephant seals and us, wondering how we got here.
To me, this direction, even progression, seems important. I don’t believe in a personal God and I certainly don’t believe in a God that cares how I worship or have sex. But I do believe that the Universe is Connected and Alive, a Self-organizing System rather than a machine.
As an aside, I have long wondered why Fundamentalist Christians – mostly Christians, but also Fundamentalist Jews and Muslims – resist the billion year timeline, insisting on a literal six day Creation. After all, without that time line, Creation and Evolution are not really competing theories. God could have made the Universe over billions of years just as easily as six days (maybe God’s days are longer). The problem, it turns out is not time, it is change. Because evolutionary change requires destruction of everything that came before, it is hard to square with a just, fair, and caring father. How could this just, fair, and caring God destroy millions – maybe billions – of Bambis and Thumpers, how could a merciful God wipe out the dinosaurs to get to chickens? End aside.
One of the things that makes Piedras so much fun and what made it so surprising is that you get very close to the animals. And up close and personal, a nursing mother facing off a horny bull becomes high drama and a two and one half ton animal becomes an individual.
We finally tore ourselves away from the Elephant Seals, hoping to get to Nepenthe at Big Sur by sunset.
We did make it in time for sunset, or as the case was today, in time for the sun to go down behind a cloud layer. So, instead of a sunset, we rewarded ourselves with their Famous Ambrosiaburgera, a couple of glasses of a very nice red wine, and a side order of brussel sprouts.