“Fuller of Monsters”: The Watery Wilderness at Silicon Valley’s Backdoor — Redux

A Gray whale skeleton at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in 2021.

“The ocean is a wilderness … wilder than the Bengal jungle and fuller of monsters.” — From Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau (1865)

Story and photos by David A. Laws

“They’re out there somewhere,” I said, pointing to the horizon.

“Dad, keep your eyes on the road. We’ll look for the Farallones,” said my son Mark. Appropriately chastened, I veered away from a 600-foot drop from Highway One into the boiling surf below Devil’s Slide.

Inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s quote from Cape Cod, we had embarked on an exploration of the wilderness frontier on the ocean side of the San Francisco Peninsula and Silicon Valley. I had recently watched a documentary on the teeming sea life of the Farallon Islands 27 miles beyond the Golden Gate and was eager to glimpse them from this vantage point high above the ocean.

I never did see the rocky peaks of the typically fog-shrouded islands on this trip, but we did meet some monsters.

This is the opening to a story published in the San Francisco Examiner weekend travel section in October 2000. In early December 2021, I retraced my route. Each stop is annotated with notes, such as this one, highlighting any significant changes over the intervening two decades.

Local readers will immediately note that inattentive drivers no longer risk falling into the ocean with the Tom Lantos Devil’s Slide bypass tunnels’ opening in 2013. Today you can hike the former Highway One roadbed to enjoy the view in safety, complete with benches and observation telescopes.

The second-largest marine protected area in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, lies just offshore from the crowded Bay Area. The Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones, and Cordell Bank National Marine sanctuaries cover more than 7,000 square miles. While they are difficult to explore directly, the shoreline offers many windows into this wilderness’ wonders.

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary

We began our journey at the Old U.S. Coast Guard Station in the San Francisco Presidio. The white-shingled, square, red-roofed structure has stood on the beach since 1890. Today it is the headquarters of the NOAA Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary dedicated to protecting the ocean surrounding the Farallon Islands.

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center on Crissy Field

These craggy, fogbound islands are at the center of an immense upwelling of cool, nutrient-rich, deep-ocean water. Dolphins, porpoises, and gray, humpback, and blue whales thrive here. In the fall, vicious battles rage between two of the ocean’s most powerful monsters, great white sharks and migrating northern elephant seals.

In the entry hall of the visitor center operated by the Greater Farallones Association, which has programs for school children and whets the appetite of the public for its whale watching, kayaking, and other programs, kids were busy examining jars of anchovies, rays, dogfish, and other preserved specimens. A life-size mural of a shark dominated the main room. Two girls hesitantly reached for sea stars in a supervised touch and feel tank. We especially enjoyed a lace-like display of seaweed.

The visitor center has been closed to the public since the onset of the COVID pandemic in early 2020. Still, the Association has continued its mission to conserve the wildlife and habitats of the Sanctuary through virtual environmental education and hands-on volunteer conservation programs.

The James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Our next stop was at Moss Beach 15 miles south — one of the richest intertidal ecosystems along the Pacific Coast. Twice a day, the teeming underwater world of the James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is exposed to view. Up to 200 species of scuttling, wriggling creatures are stranded by the retreating tide in 30-acres of tide pools.

Tidepools of the James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

We stepped cautiously across wet, slippery rocks. Foam bubbles flecking the surface of newly formed pools quickly burst to reveal a bustling community of crabs, mussels, clams, urchins, starfish, and anemones. A roving naturalist pointed out the differences between mollusks, coelenterates, and echinoderms.

Occasionally, monsters also visit. Early this year, a rare Longnose Lancetfish washed up on the shore. Large dagger-like fangs protrude from the mouth of this voracious predator, whose Latin name translates as “scaleless ferocious serpent.”

As a volunteer conservation easement monitor for the Menlo Park-based Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), I worked with land manager Jean Lauer. After Jean died in 2005, POST created a trail in her memory on Pillar Point Bluff overlooking the southern end of the reserve. It has become a popular place to spot seals and migrating whales.

Pillar Point Harbor

A few miles further south, we stopped at the only sheltered anchorage along this rugged coast. Pillar Point Harbor at Princeton has a colorful history of Prohibition rum-running. Today it serves weekend sailors, sport and commercial fishers, and tourists on whale-watch and Farallon Islands cruises.

Purchasing fish direct from the boat

A hand-scrawled board at Johnson Pier listed boats where we could buy fish right off the deck. Today we could choose from halibut, salmon, rockfish, or lingcod. Seafood establishments crowd the dockside for those who prefer their cuisine ready to eat.

After Pillar Point and the suburban sprawl of Half Moon Bay, we entered rolling agricultural country. Brussels sprouts, artichokes, cattle, and ancient wooden barns finally outnumbered cars and people. Plump orange pumpkins, the quintessential coast fall crop, lay ready for Halloween.

Protected from development by conservation easements and purchase for public use, the scenery had changed little over the years. Several easements included access to coastal walks and beaches that did not exist on my trip in 2000.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

Twenty miles south of Half Moon Bay, we spied the slender white sentinel of the lighthouse at Pigeon Point Lightstation State Historic Park. Worth a drive for this destination alone, the 115-foot-tall brick tower is a state historic landmark. On weekends, docents lead climbs up the steep, winding stairway to the first-order Fresnel lens manufactured in Paris, France by the firm of Henry Lepaute.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse and park store

Three former keeper’s cottages operated by Hostelling International offer somewhat Spartan but modestly priced dormitory-style accommodations. For just $16.00 a night per person, you can sleep on the coast’s most spectacular perch, directly above the ocean.

This spot is cold and shrouded in fog for much of the summer. As so often in fall and spring, the weather was clear and still today. We rested on an observation deck overhanging the rocky outer point at the rear of the fog signal building where harbor seals, sea otters, and pelicans entertained us. From November to January, this deck is one of the best places along the coast to spot gray whales on their annual 12,000-mile round trip migration from the Arctic to Baja.

A year after our visit, a section of the cornice on the lighthouse’s exterior collapsed, and the facility was closed to the public. The lighthouse may still be viewed from the grounds, and the boardwalk to the rear deck is open. Restoration work finally began in 2020. Check with the park website for current opening information. Due to the pandemic, the hostel is currently accepting reservations for private vacation rentals only. But $16 nights disappeared long ago.

Año Nuevo Coast Natural Preserve

Ten minutes’ drive south of the lighthouse, Ano Nuevo State Park is one of the world’s largest mainland breeding colonies for Northern Elephant Seals. Returning from near extinction, 4,000 or so of these monstrous-sized pinnipeds now mass on this sandy, windswept point between December and March.

After the females give birth, bull seals weighing up to 5,000 pounds engage in bloody duels for mating rights, and visits are limited to naturalist-guided walks by reservation.

A battle-scarred elephant seal on Ano Nuevo beach

Scarred males, calving females, and young pups crowded the beach when our family visited in January two years ago. Today it was deserted, except for a few harbor seals sunning themselves on offshore rocks.

Loud barking carried clearly across the channel from Ano Nuevo Island. Our binoculars picked up hundreds of California sea lions waddling uphill on their flippers to their favorite accommodations, the long-deserted lighthouse keeper’s home.

Lonely, undeveloped, and wild, the point suggests it hasn’t changed much since Spanish maritime explorer Vizcaino first saw it. But when he sailed past on New Year’s Day in 1603, the island had not yet been severed from the mainland by the coastal current.

Reservations are now required to enter the elephant seal viewing area during the breeding season. For information, visit the park website

Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Finally, we met a true monster — one with a heart as big as a Volkswagen bug. In 1979 an 87-foot blue whale washed ashore on Pescadero State Beach, near Pigeon Point. Its huge, bleached skeleton now welcomes visitors to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at the Long Marine Laboratory of U.C. Santa Cruz.

Left: Blue whale skeleton under construction in 2001. Right: The completed skeleton in 2021

The center, which opened in March 2000, sits on a bluff overlooking Monterey Bay near Natural Bridges State Beach. Striking, barn-like “industrial-modern” buildings house teaching and aquarium facilities open to the public. The exhibit hall, bursting with multiple tanks, robust control valves, exposed seawater pipes, and numerous charts and diagrams, looked like a working marine lab.

Aquarium displays raised and answered such questions as; “Why are the creatures so colorful?” “How fast do they move?” It took us a long time to decide that the hooded nudibranch in the “What’s in the Bay Today?” tank was an animal and not a plant.

Primo and Pukka, two dolphins, who were rejected as psychologically unsuited for the U.S Navy’s underwater bomb-detection training, cavorted playfully in their huge circular pool. Our docent told us that after successful graduation at the lab, the Navy wanted them back. They are still here.

Raucous barking and splashing emanated from the Sea Lion Cognition Lab. These creatures have extraordinary visual recognition skills. Our guide showed us pictures of dozens of complex symbols that they have learned to earn extra goodies.

Although tours of the lab pools and research areas are no longer offered, the Discovery Center is still open with all essential health precautions and is worth a visit.

Coda

As we drove home, I recalled the skepticism with which I had greeted travel writer Paul Theroux’s observation in Fresh Air Fiend of Thoreau’s discovery that “the shore is the only way to understand the sea — not a voyage on the ocean, but a stroll on the sand. There everything is revealed.” After our weekend trek along 100-miles of ocean bluffs and beaches, I understood.

IF YOU GO

In the summer, the weather on the coast is often chilly and overcast. The rest of the year, if it is not raining, it is likely to be bright and clear. Always take layers of clothing. If you plan to explore tide pools, check the tide times, plan to arrive near low tide. And NEVER turn your back to the ocean.

In addition to the Pigeon Point youth hostel, unique accommodations along the coast include a hostel at the Point Montara Lighthouse and Costanoa, an upscale tent bungalow campground near Ano Nuevo. The Half Moon Bay Chamber of Commerce website will help you locate more traditional lodgings.

The original version of this story was published as a Weekend Escape in the Sunday Travel section of the San Francisco Examiner on October 8, 2000.

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