Photographing the Central Californian Coast
As I prepare to move to Texas, I wanted to share with you the multitude of photographic opportunities that I have found along the central Californian coastline. The geographical area I am going to talk about is mostly encompassed by Monterey County along the Monterey Bay. So if you visit, I highly suggest basing yourself out of Monterey (the city) to take advantage of all these locations that are within a few hours drive at most.
For The Birder
Located on the Pacific Flyway, Monterey Bay has an abundance of bird photography opportunities all around. In Spring and Fall you will see the highest concentrations of birds while summer and winter are still plentiful due to the mild climate year round. Species such as the brown pelican, western snowy plover, and black oystercatcher are common sightings here if you know where to look.
Shorebirds such as sanderlings, willets, long-billed curlews, and godwits can be found foraging in the estuaries and along the sandy shores within the tidelines. And various species of sea gulls are everywhere!
Photo tip: Make sure to check the tides and understand the behavior of your subject in relation to the tide. One behavioral consideration I dealt with the black oystercatchers was that they are more active foraging at low to mid tide and rest during high tide. Many of the shorebirds will move with the tide, being closer to the ocean in the mud flats during low tide and going up the estuaries during higher tide.
Top locations for bird photography in the area include Moss Landing State Beach, Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, and the coastline of the Pacific Grove Marine Gardens State Marine Conservation Area.
For more on photographing shorebirds in Monterey, I suggest also taking a look at my other article "Summer of Shorebirds."
For The Wildlife Seeker
The number one animal most people come to the area to see is the endangered southern sea otter. Undeniably cute, these keystone predators are found along the rocky coastline here, enjoying the kelp forests they helped re-establish. Look for them off the back of the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium or along Elkhorn Slough. Mind the tides as they are more active feeding during incoming/high tides from what I have found through my personal observations.
Another unique marine mammal that can be found in the area is the northern elephant seal. These massive behemoths are a sight to see, hear, and smell, during the height of birthing and breeding season along the coast. There are a handful of places you are able to see them during birthing and breeding, which takes place late December through February. January is the best time to visit to witness almost all stages of these animal's life cycle.
Starting in April through early August, depending on the age and sex of the elephant seals, they haul out for about six weeks to molt, or shed their coat and outer layer of skin. So if you can't be here during the winter don't worry, you can still see them
These viewing areas are a few hours drive from Monterey, but totally worth it! Check out the Piedras Blancas Rookery first and foremost. Free with parking that can accommodate even RVs and handicap accessible viewing, it really is the best place to see them. Other viewing locations are Año Nuevo State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore.
California sea lions make themselves known in the harbors around Monterey where they often use docks and the breakwater construction to haul out. They can be spotted weighing down floating piers in Moss Landing or taking over moored sailboats in the Monterey Marina. These animals are best viewed from a boat, such as the whale watching tour boats, as they head out of the harbor. Or consider a kayak and just remember to keep at least three kayak lengths from these protected marine mammals.
Harbor seals are the other popular pinniped that inhabit these waters. Very shy and wary of humans, photographing these animals is always a very slow process in order to gain their trust and not cause them to startle or stress. The areas I have found them more frequently have been Point Lobos State Park, the coastal monolith islands of the Pacific Grove Marine Gardens State Marine Conservation Area (only accessible during low tide), and in the lower portions of Elkhorn Slough.
Whales and dolphins are also plentiful out in the Bay. Unless you are bringing your personal boat with you, I highly recommend booking yourself on one of the whale watching tours that leave out of either Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey or the Moss Landing harbor. My personal favorite is Chris' Whale Watching as their captain and crew are really good about anticipating the movement of the whales and putting the boat in an ideal position for viewing and photographing. If looking for a water level view and you have the funds, my second choice would be to go out with Captain and Naturalist Kate Spencer on her Fast Raft Ocean Safari.
If looking for something wild out of the water, I highly suggest taking a trip up to Point Reyes National Seashore for tule elk, the elk endemic to north-central California, along with the chance to spot black-tailed deer, bobcats, coyotes, and badgers. Or head inland to San Luis National Wildlife Refuge for more tule elk, black-tailed deer, and coyotes.
For further reading, I did an article last year on the Wild Side of Monterey that featured many of these animals and naturalist information about the area. Hopefully, you find it complementary to this one.
For The Landscape Lover
Before moving here, I had heard what a beautiful area this is and that I would just fall in love with the the landscapes. Well, that is not what actually happened. At least for me, this area, with the steep cliffs, lots of private property and coastal development, and being such a well photographed area overall has left me quite unenthusiastic about the landscape here.
However, two things.
One: I know I am picky when it comes to my personal taste in landscapes. We all have these biases and preferences as to what we choose to shoot. Its what makes everyone's art and portfolios unique! I find the area beautiful to look at but not to photograph in many situations, so don't be put off just because it wasn't to my photographic taste.
Two: I was able to find some places I do like and here they are in no particular order.
Garrapata State Beach is a wonderful place to catch the sunset. Popular for photo shoots, last time I was down there there was no less than four couples having photo shoots there. With trails along the cliff line and down to the beach this place gives you options for how you want to capture the area.
Keyhole Arch is probably my favorite. Yes, its been done before. Yes, it can be difficult to get a unique image here, but there is still something so magical about seeing the sunlight shafts come through the arch, brilliant orange, dancing as waves flood through the arch as they have for for years and years. Its like witnessing the opening and closing of a portal to another time or place, if only you could just walk through it (don't try this, especially with any sort of tide).
The third place I offer those visiting for landscapes is just down the road in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. McWay Falls is a wonderful waterfall that dives from the rocky ledge onto the beach of a protect cove. Photographing it from above, you are able to put the waterfall in perspective and capture the color of the ocean as well. Note that as of November 2020, this area was closed due to fire damage earlier in the year. Check access before visiting.
Overall, since we are on the west coast, sunset is typically best for light. Mornings can be extremely foggy, especially in the summer when the cold waters of the Bay and the warmer air temperatures as the sun rises create the perfect conditions for coastal marine layer fog to form and move inland.
For The Traveler
These are only a few of the locations I have found while in this area. I highly encourage you to explore this coastline for the many wonderful subjects it has to offer. There are tons of small pull-offs with their own views of the coast and ocean to take advantage of and trails for miles and miles. Photographing it is all up to you and how you view it.
However, if you don't want to go it alone or if you want to maximize your time in the field (by not having to search locations yourself), check out my Photo Adventure page and make sure to subscribe to my newsletter to find out when I will be hosting adventures back to this area in 2021 and 2022!
Until next time, cheers!