Sun 10 Feb 2013
I wouldn’t normally visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse on a Feb. 8, but Guido wanted to go there and look for whales. Dr. Guido Hennig, a German who lives in Switzerland, had flown to San Francisco, as he does every year, to attend the “Laser Applications in Microelectronic and Optoelectronic Manufacturing” conference at Mosconi Center.
The Point Reyes Lighthouse was built in 1870 and was manned round the clock until 1975 when it was automated.
This year was the 18th annual laser-applications conference. Last year Guido chaired the whole shebang; this year he chaired part of it. Guido, who works for the Max Daetwyler Corporation, invented a technique for using lasers in “the patterning of micro cells on rolls in the printing industry.” (In the company’s words.)
Ever since we met in the Station House Café seven years ago, he always visits when he’s in town.
The view from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard looking down to Drakes Estero at Historic E Ranch, which is operated by the Nunes family.
Because Guido and I headed out to the lighthouse on a Friday and not the weekend, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard was mostly empty. The lack of traffic also meant we could drive all the way to the lighthouse parking lot and just walk the last quarter mile to the information station and overlook. On busy weekends, visitors have to park in bigger parking lots further away and take shuttlebuses to where we parked.
The Great Beach as seen while walking between the lighthouse and its parking lot.
We had no sooner gotten out of our car than we saw a ranger sticking up a sign that said the steps from the overlook down to the lighthouse were closed. “Due to high wind,” he explained.
Just how fierce the wind was quickly became obvious on our walk to the lighthouse overlook. It was so strong and cold it made the inside of my ears ache, but I’ve put up with worse and kept on walking.
A ranger returns from the Point Reyes Lighthouse after all the public has left and the stairs are closed.
Two hundred and sixty-nine stairs lead down to the lighthouse from the overlook. It’s not too bad going down, but the return is equivalent to climbing a 30-story staircase.
A ranger at the information office told me his gauge showed the wind speed at 51 mph. (That’s a strong gale on the Beaufort Scale.) The temperature was in the 40s, he said and estimated the wind-chill factor was down to freezing.
The ranger said the risk from high wind for someone on the staircase is that it can cause a person to trip and fall down the stairs. If the person were injured, a rescue wouldn’t be quick, he added, since it couldn’t be done by helicopter in a high wind. It would require getting the victim all the way to the top of the stairs and an ambulance all the way out to the Point.
Incidental to the high wind were whitecaps that hid any whales that Guido might see. Nor were there many to be seen. Just an occasional juvenile, a ranger said.
California gray whales winter in the shallow lagoons of Baja California where their calves are born. The southbound migration peaks here in mid-January. They migrate back to their feeding grounds in the waters of Alaska for the summer, with the northbound migration peaking here in mid-March.
When Guido and I returned to my car, I was amazed to see a raven briefly hovering in one place despite the strong gale. Ravens really are as agile in the air as they’re reputed to be.
Elephant seal colony at Drakes Bay.
With Guido unable to see any whales, a docent at the lighthouse overlook suggested we instead take a look at the elephant seal colony at nearby Chimney Rock. We did, and from an overlook there we could see pups, mothers, and bulls sunning themselves beside Drakes Bay.
Elephant seals spend 80 percent of their lives in the open ocean with 90 percent of that being spent underwater “eating, sleeping, digesting, and traveling,” according to the Park Service.
Elephant seals are big and heavy — a bull Northern elephant seal can get up to 16 feet long and weight 5,400 pounds — but it’s the bull’s elephantine proboscis that give them their name.
Point St. Joseph commercial fishing-boat dock as seen from the path between the Chimney Rock parking lot and the elephant seal overlook.
A short turnoff along the road to Chimney Rock took us to yet another overlook, this one for viewing a sea-lion colony.
The “colony,” however, turned out to include a few elephant seals (such as the bull at upper right) basking in the sun with their sea lion cousins.
Elephant seals were hunted almost to extinction during the 1800s, and there were none at Point Reyes for 150 years. In the early 1970s, they began showing up again, with the first breeding pair being found in 1981.
Since then the colony has grown rapidly, and today “the Point Reyes elephant seal population is between 1,500 and 2,000,” the Park Service says. This growth has, in turn, caused some elephant seals to fan out to other beaches in the area, the Park Service adds. Perhaps that explains why some of them now hang out on the sea lions’ beach.
On our way home, Guido wanted to stop at South Beach to shoot a few last photos, so we did. What the wind did to surf was impressive, but what it did on the beach was less so. The blowing sand was almost blinding, and the wind-chill factor felt even colder than at the lighthouse.
I finally retreated to my car and watched the scene through the windshield. Guido, however, decided to spend some time on the beach. He could handle the wind and sand, he said, because he was used to blizzards in Switzerland. It was a telling comparison. A windy, wintry day on Point Reyes is about as punishing as a blizzard in Switzerland. After Guido returned to the car, we drove straight back to Mitchell cabin, managing to get there before Lynn sent out a St. Bernard with a brandy barrel.