Mid-May in Monterey. Has a nice ring to it doesn't it? After living in the area for several years, each visit back seems a bit like visiting an old friend. There is a comfort that comes with turning off the GPS because you know the streets, the parking, and the venues. It's like walking into your best friend's house and knowing where the glasses are, that the restroom is down the hall on the left, and please help yourself to the ice tea in the fridge. For me, Monterey has the added layer of knowing I have the knowledge of where the wildlife hotspots are and that, for the most part, they have been predictable over the years. Going back to the best friend analogy, this is being greeted by your dog with a happy wagging tail.
This spring, I had an amazing group of adventurous photographers who were open to exploring and learning, both in photography and about the area. It was such a pleasure to spend time with them and be able to introduce them to the wildlife and wildscapes of the Monterey Bay area.
Weather and sea conditions were not ideal this photo adventure, as can happen at any time. Bright sun most of the day and heavy swells made for some challenging photography conditions. However, after years of observing the wildlife of the area in all sorts of weather and knowing locations that open and close with the tide, we were still able to make the most of the situation and walk away with some great images and encounters. Its one of the perks of going with someone who has lived in the area before, rather than just visiting on multiple occasions.
This was one of the first times I had been able to photograph sea otters as they foraged in the heavy surf which was a sight to witness to say the least. While I had observed them in these spots a few times over the years, I was never able to actually get down to them the way we were this visit. This had to do with the timing of the tides and knowing routes through the tide pools that would be safest to access given the conditions. Once we got closer, it looked like the otters were trying to eat lunch while on a roller-coaster! Yet they somehow made it look rather easy and seemed to be getting their fill as there were about half a dozen sea otters in this one cove, all coming back to the surface with food.
We also had all of half a moment to capture an uncommon wild southern sea otter behavior - a sea otter on land. Its frequently quoted that southern sea otters live their entire lives in the ocean. Which is true. Unlike their northern brethren or their freshwater cousins, southern sea otters rarely leave the water. Which is why it was such a treat to be able to capture this one frame of a southern sea otter amongst the tide pools as it decided to climb over the rocks rather than take a longer swim to get to the area it wanted to feed in. Very cautious, it glanced back at us as it did this as all the otters knew we were there from the start. Trying to hide in this environment is not only tricky but often seen as a predatory move. With nothing more than a few initial looks our way, all the otters continued to forage and did not show any behavioral signs of stress based on our presence.
The timing of this photo adventure coincided with spring migration along the Pacific Flyway as well. This meant that millions of shore birds, wading birds, and sea birds were making their way from wintering grounds to their breeding grounds further north or were starting to breed in Monterey, their final destination. The Monterey area is an important stop-over for many of the shorebirds that breed in the artic as the food is plentiful along this stretch of coastline. We had a great time getting a bit wet and sandy while positioning ourselves at eye level with sanderlings, marbled godwits, long billed curlews, black oystercatchers, and brown pelicans.
Another species we were able to photograph that is always a fun one to work with are the California sea lions. I actually captured one of my favorite images of this species on this trip. We had amazing golden light one morning as the sun was rising and were looking for subjects to take advantage of the situation when all of a sudden this sea lion cruises up and starts climbing the estuary bank about 70 feet from where we were gathered. This was two strokes of luck between the lighting and the sea lion as I had never seen one come ashore this far up the slough. But I'm every so glad that it did on this morning of all mornings! Cherry on top was that it seemed to play and pose for us, stretching its head one way before coming back the other. And adjusting its position this way or that, as if to make sure we captured all its angles. This went on for several minutes before it settled down onto the ground in a prone position to help thermoregulate and rest. By that time the golden light was shifting and the moment was over.
Beyond this encounter, we also found more sea lions lounging in an area where they are rather familiar with people and, while we can get close to them, there is a boundary that protects them from us and vice versa. It is in this spot we are able to make intimate portraits and abstract images of the sea lions.
Out on the Bay, we had a bit more limited success due to the swells. We saw plenty of humpback whale tail flukes and even observed a series of breaches. Unfortunately, the breaches were at a distance a bit further than one would have hoped on this day. Yet we did get to see massive flocks of sooty shearwaters and common murres. The sooty shearwaters were just returning from their breeding season down in Australia and New Zealand and are considered the most abundant bird off the coast of California, known to gather in flocks of hundreds if not thousands.
Evenings were spent on capturing sunset in one form or another. Limited clouds left us getting creative and looking to make the most of the orange skies and rocky coastline. Taking a drive further south from the Monterey peninsula gave us great views in the direction of the few wisps that had developed. Not only did this vantage point give us grand views of the iconic central California coastline but allowed us to put into use the long exposure techniques the group had wanted to focus on outside of wildlife photography.
While leading the photo adventures, my focus is on the participants and ensuring they are capturing the best images possible. This includes keeping an eye on activity outside the main focus point to give participants a heads up of what is inbound or if there is something happening to the left or right that might be more photogenic. So my shooting is limited to times of consistent action and lighting after everyone else is set. Taking advantage of being in the area again, I usually get into town a day early and leave a day late to do some personal photography while in the area. This helps save on travel costs and environmental impact.
During these personal days, I had the chance to get out on the water in the Bay and the slough. There are several young humpbacks that have been very active and I hope they hang around through the season so that I can see them again in October during my next Wild Monterey Photo Adventure.
Southern sea otters pup year round but, as an endangered species, it is always exciting to see them knowing they are the future of the species. Never mind they are incredibly adorable!
Overall, it was a successful trip to Monterey and I look forward to leading another this October during the fall migration.
Note: Due to the high interest in this photo adventure, I have added a second set of dates to the calendar for this October. Run through Wildside Nature Tours, it is an all inclusive adventure which will not only give you the ability to just concentrate on creating images but also will help insulate your wallet from any changes in rental car costs and California fuel prices. I have only two spots remaining on this tour, so, if interested, now is the time to reserve your seat. Find more details and reservation details here.