Butterflies, seals and eating scorpions

Yumm… scorpion.

We headed North up the Big Sur today and saw a wonderful variety of wildlife. The coast itself lived up to its reputation as one of the world’s most scenic drives. It’s a product of the great depression when the government put people to work building roads and bridges where they otherwise had no reason to be. The result is a lovely winding road that hugs the cliffs and provides huge views over the rocks and projections leading down to the Pacific.

Monarch Butterflies.

Our first stop was at a little place that is a major stopping point for the Monarch Butterfly in its annual migration. The Monarchs generally live for only a few weeks. But once a year their life-span extends to allow them to undertake an epic migration from the North-West of the United States all the way down to Mexico. They can only fly when the temperature is above the low teens (in Celsius) and when the mercury falls lower than that they cluster together for warmth in vibrant, flickering groups on trees. Pismo Beach has a few trees surrounded entirely by a camping ground and huge RV-dealerships and has tens of thousands of butterflies a season.

Cal eating cricket.

It takes a moment to spot the butterflies clustered on the Eucalypts. From a distance they look like leaves. And it’s really only with the assistance of either a zoom on your camera or the telescopes provided by enthusiastic volunteers that you realise that the trees have huge clusters of gently undulating butterflies, clustered like berries on a branch. We seem to have learnt a great deal about butterflies on this trip, largely through museum visits. so it was wonderful to see this great, and ultimately so fragile, migration underway.

Elephant seals resting.

We drove on to the town of Pismo Beach, a classic sea-side town walking that knife-edge between picturesque and tacky. We wandered about looking for somewhere, anywhere, that served real coffee and finally stumbled upon a confectionary shop that did a sideline in properly made coffee. It also sold insects.

So Callum tried a cricket and Declan ate a scorpion. I use those verbs advisedly because the cricket went into Cal’s mouth and then came pretty much immediately back out. Declan ate his scorpion with gusto. So typical.

Big Sur coast.

And then on again, for an hour or so until we came to Piedres Blancas which is the home of a huge colony of Elephant Seals. Now I must say I was thrilled to see Elephant Seals only  few feet away from me. But, having said that, they are not the most prepossessing animals; really they bear a disturbing resemblance to slugs, huge slugs. When Elephant Seals come to the beach they don’t do anything, they just sit and, because they don’t eat, they seriously just lie about and conserve energy. In a month the big (and for ‘big’ read three ton) males arrive with their droopy proboscises and face off. Right now the beach is covered with females and youngsters who just sunbathe and wait. Great to see them but you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t also wish for some action.

We had lunch a further half-hour up the road at the Whale Watching Cafe which was, rather ironically, filled with momentos of the whale-killing industry. We starred assiduously out the windows but didn’t see any whales. I live in perpetual hope of seeing whales without having to brave sea-sickness along the way.

Unknown animal by the coast.

Then on again with the Big Sur seascape becoming ever-more dramatic. We stopped at a few lookouts and really the views were absolutely stunning. As the sun came out the views of huge waves breaking against rocky cliffs and tiny outcropped islands were truly beautiful. The more Northern parts of Big Sur totally justify its reputation as a world-class drive. The final lookout also proved to be home to a small mammal that we failed to identify but were captivated by. It was a small, sleek mouse-like animal which had made its home right by the car park. It fearlessly would stick half its  body out of its burrow, grab some grass and retreat to munch on its provisions.


And then on again. A few turns away from the coast and we were in a startlingly different environment. Suddenly we were surrounded by huge, towering redwoods clustered in the valleys leading down from the hills. These were not small or young trees – they were huge and ancient. Near the car park there was a stump where the rangers had counted rings backwards and marked out dates: the first date, about six inches out from the core, was the signing of the Magna Carta.

We walked up to the Valley View through the redwood forest and then through the more sparsely wooded hills. Our destination proved to be a vertiginous outlook with a view down an enormous valley right back out to the coast. As we walked back down the sun started setting behind the hills, leaving the older, deeper forest glades in a deep, rich, chestnut-brown light. Almost as we arrived back at our car we came across a huge green slug making its way up a tree.

And once again we were driving North. Now the Sun was beginning to set out at sea. The rocky ridges we passed were populated by people silhouetted against the skyline and staring out to sea, looking for all the world like African meercats staring alertly around them. Also silhouetted against the pink background of the setting sun we saw Californian Condors, their finely-moving feathers visible in the finest detail.

We arrived in Monterey on the vestigial coat-tails of the setting sun. It was a great day seeing a wonderful variety of wildlife and some stunning scenery. But the two most incongruous and wryly entertaining sights though were not the obvious ones. The first was a herd of zebras calmly grazing in a field by the road – a feature of Randolph Hearst’s castle.

The second was a brief view as we turned a corner at one of the most picturesque areas of the Big Sur. Stunning cliffs, sand beaches and  towering trees. And there, standing by the side of the road in a little lay-by, was a woman standing holding a large hand-lettered sign reading: “Occupy Big Sur”.

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