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Liver and Rotting Broccoli

Saturday, 10 May 2003
written by Teresa

ESealCloseup A gentle smell, reminiscent of liver, wafts up from the beach at Piedras Blancas where hundreds of Elephant Seals have hauled out to moult. They lie higgledy-piggledy, curved around and against each other, their moulted fur littering the sand. They are masters of the art of total relaxation, whiling away time in a semi comatose state only rousing themselves to flipper sand onto their own backs and into their neighbours faces. As all young children know, rule number one on the beach is No Throwing Sand, but the seals are oblivious to this and impervious to face fulls of sand, flipper or tail. Notions of personal space do not exist in this intensely gregarious colony. Stirred from their slumbers, individual seals occasionally set off across the beach in a surprising burst of energy, travelling over and through groups of their cousins, before just as suddenly grounding to a complete halt and resuming their dead beast impersonations. Others lie dozing with one flipper held up in the air, the little nailed tips curved over, the strain of keeping that last inch vertical just too much effort. A few immature bulls remain with the colony, honing their skills in the posturing department, raising their huge bodies to full height and generally making sure everyone knows they are there while the sound of snotty snores emanating from the slumbering majority continues in the background.

Piedras Blancas represents a reversal in the fortunes of Elephant Seals. Hunted almost to extinction, one colony survived on an island off Baja California proving remarkably resilient and eventually helped by legislation placing a moratorium on their slaughter. In 1990 less than two dozen animals turned up and mated at the popular surfing beach at Piedras Blancas. The rest is history. Today the colony numbers over eight thousand and the surfers have given way to the relentless return of nature.

Sea Otter We had come up to the small seaside village of Cayucos to spend a couple of days with friends holidaying on the coast and there we were treated to the sight of a Sea Otter having a prolonged and leisurely dinner in the shallow waters of the bay. Our presence on the beach piqued her curiosity and a few times she appeared to take an appraising look in our direction. Otherwise she was intent on the business of feeding, disappearing beneath the waves to surface a while later, lying on her back busily working open the captured goodie with her dexterous little fingers. We weren't sure if she was particularly thin or if her appearance was indicative of the physiology of otters, but either way her ribs and spine were clearly visible through her dense coat. Given the success of each dive it's hard to believe she was going hungry.

The day following our visit to the seals we set off south in the pouring rain to Solvang and into the surreal experience of being in Denmark. Solvang Courtyard The buildings appear to be made of timber and wattle, crammed in side by side around picturesque courtyards resplendent with the bright colours of hanging baskets and window boxes. Replica windmills stand in the town, their arms forever redundant. Danish bakeries entice with pastries of many delights, the entire town a plethora of touristy tack shops in the true tradition, interspersed with higher end emporia trying to appeal to those with money to spend on myriad trinkets, craft and art work. The centre of town is a world of make believe and it's sheer difference is a refreshing pleasure if you allow yourself to enter the fantasy for a few hours.

I can only imagine that we were somehow still caught in the reality warp when we set off two days later on a whale watching trip, without the camera. It still amazes me that we did this since we very rarely set out without it, but notions of spilt milk come to mind and we now have the excuse to go on another trip at some point. We went out of Monterey in a small boat crammed with camera toting tourists and headed for the depths of the underwater canyon on the other side of the bay. A school of Pacific White Sided Dolphins paid us a visit speeding through the waters around and under the boat, clearly visible and obviously curious. Their sleek bodies move effortlessly, apparently inconsequential flicks of the tail sending them forward at a remarkable speed. Unlike other dolphins we have seen, these looked brown with distinctive white markings giving them their name.

Moving on, we came to the feeding grounds of the Humpback Whales and there they were, intensely interested in the tonne or so of food that needed consuming in the next twenty four hours but aware enough of our presence that we could not approach too closely. Now and again one would surface nearer to the boat sending plumes of water into the air, taking in enough oxygen to dive for the next mouthful and sending the overwhelming smell of rotting broccoli in our direction. Their halitosis is not a fact often mentioned on wild life programs but the phrase "whale breath" has entered our lexicon and I can only hope we will never have to apply it to each other. Immense bodies arch through the water before taking a nose dive, revealing the characteristic huge tail, curving over as they descend. Groups of California Sea Lions were close at hand moving en masse through the water, surfacing and diving in unison with their giant relatives, feeding on the scraps from the smorgasbord feasted on by the whales. Overhead, the gulls circled, also benefiting from the early lunch being enjoyed below.

My only regrets are the camera and that we didn't get a closer look. Maybe next time.

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