Monday, February 24, 2020

Whale Watching

An adult gray whale surfaces near the beach in Malibu. All photos © 2020 Suzanne Guldimanm

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

—Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark

Every winter, California gray whales take part in an epic migration from the Arctic to the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez in Baja, and back again. The first southbound whales are usually spotted passing Malibu in December; the first northbound whales usually begin to appear in February.

One of the first northbound whales we've seen during the current 2020 season. It helps when someone else spots it first and is helpfully pointing!

On the way south the whales are traveling fast and rarely linger; on the journey north, females with new calves stay close to shore. They often travel in small groups made up of adults, calves and young whales, and are often joined by dolphins.

March is usually the peak time to look for northbound gray whales off the coast of Malibu, but numbers of northbound whales have already been spotted, and the migration usually runs through the end of April.

Even though these animals are giants it can still be hard to see them, not unlike Lewis Carroll's long-sought but perpetually elusive snark. How do you see whales? The first rule: take time out to go to the beach and look for them, and don't give up if you don't see any the first time, or the second, or the third.

Here's a closer look at the same whale. That telltale spout is the easiest way to spot a whale, but there are other clues: ripples on the surface of the water, a Loch Ness monster-like glimpse of a tail fluke, flipper, or dorsal ridge, or the presence of other animals like dolphins or gulls, in the area. We'll take a closer look at all of these indicators in this post. 

There are plenty of good options for whale watch cruises out of Ventura, Marina Del Rey and San Pedro, but I like to watch for whales from the shore. Corral, Zuma, Leo Carrillo and the small pocket beaches along PCH between Malibu and Point Mugu beaches are all good spots for whale watching, but the best spot is usually Westward, where the whales come close to shore to feed and rest.

It's worth paying to park in the Westward Beach lot at this time of year. Bring a chair and an umbrella and picnic and make a day of it; or walk up to the top of the Point Dume Nature Preserve and watch for whales from one of the viewing platforms—there are two new platforms this year, although some trails in the nature preserve have been closed for trail work and the new beach staircase that is going in later this spring.

There are no guarantees in whale watching, whether on a boat or on the beach, You may see a dozen or none at all, but an hour  or two spent watching for whales is never time wasted. In its own way, it's a form of meditation.

The first thing I look for is any kind of disturbance on the water: a gathering a birds, ripples on the surface of the water, all of these can be signs that whales and other marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions are present.

The sudden presence of a large number of gulls means a good chance there are marine mammals around. In this case it was dolphins, attracted to the same bait fish the gulls were catching.

Gulls following a dolphin, hoping for a share of lunch.

This lone dolphin caught my eye at Westward Beach. 

There was too much wake out there for just one dolphin. Something much larger was in water.

A massive gray whale surfaced a second later, one of the biggest I've ever seen.

Here's her calf, popping up to spout. 

Most gray whale sightings are of a distant spout or puff of breath far out to sea or a Loch Ness Monster-like hump. My attention was drawn by the narrow line of darker water before I saw the whales spouting.  And the bigger band of dark water in the distance?

That dark line was the wake from a mega-pod of more than 100 common dolphins swimming past, almost out of range for my telephoto lens. 

Often all you see is the puff of breath with no whale in sight. They can hold their breath for a long time and its easy to lose track of them before they surface to breathe again.

During the northbound migration in the spring the whales come closer to shore and linger in one place longer, mothers rest and nurse their calves, but even whales that don't have young may take a break and rest near the shore, offering whale watchers a closer look at the heart-shaped spout that is the classic sign of a gray whale. 

If the whale is close enough to shore, you can sometimes you can hear it before you see it.

A ring like this is produced when the whale exhales and dives. Gray whales feed on the sea floor, scooping up mud that they filter through their baleen for the amphipods, krill, worms, and other invertebrates that are their main food source.  Gray whales are more adaptable than some of their relatives, and have been known to snack on small fish and squid—prey that also attracts dolphins, sea lions and seabirds.

There were two whales here a second ago. The ring of bubbles is obvious, but the smooth oval "footprint" next to it is also evidence of a whale. 

This is what is happening under the water during a spout. By the time someone shouts, "Oh look, a whale!"  The whale has exhaled, inhaled, and vanished with a flick of its powerful tail. 

Here are the "footprints" left behind on the surface of the water.

This is a beach-level view of a whale footprint. 

A second later, all you might see are some telltale bubbles. 

A whale footprint is often really a tail-print.

The gray whale's flukes are huge—easily 12 feet across. It's no wonder the tail leaves a distinctive disturbance in the water.

The tip of one of the two fluke lobes is often all of the whale one actually sees, and it can be mistaken for a dolphin fin at first glance.

The gray whale's enormous flippers are sometimes visible when the whale is rolling over under the water.

The whale's dorsal ridge suggests the back of the classical sea monster.

This species doesn't have dorsal fins, but some gray whales have pronounced dorsal "knuckles" near the tail. 

Sometimes you get a glimpse of a whale's head, or rostrum, out of the water.

You can just see the eye of this young whale as it surfaces to breathe.

Here's the barnacle-covered back of a gray whale's head, with the twin blowholes clearly visible. 

This whale is "spyhopping," poking its head out of the water and looking around.

Here's a view from above, showing how little of the whale is actually visible when it spyhops. A mature gray whale can grow to be 45 feet long, but only a small part of the animal is ever visible to the human observer standing on the beach.

Very rarely you might see a gray whale breeching. I took this photo in 2014 from the side of the road at Corral Beach. Those white lines are the five-foot-long neck groves on the underside of the whale. That's a good 60,000 pounds of marine mammal flying through the air—an impressive sight!

Even when you know you've spotted whales it can be hard to figure out what one is looking at. There are at least three whales here: one head, two tails, and the footprint left by the tail of the first whale as it popped its head out of the water.

There are whales in water in this image—the same three in the pervious photo, but you would never know it at first glance. Whales are elusive: patience and luck are key to seeing them. Gray whales may be giants but they are also fragile. 
The Pacific population of gray whales has recovered after being hunted to edge of extinction in the 20th century, but they are still vulnerable to ship strikes, trash, fishing gear, ocean warming, and even over-enthusiastic whale watchers who sometimes get too close or harass them with boats and drones.

2019 was a dire year for gray whales. There were so many deaths that an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) was declared.  It's important to give these amazing beings space. NOAA recommends observing whales from at least 100 yards away, and never swimming or paddling out to get a closer look. As much as we love to see them, we need to give them the room and peace they need to travel  safely and undisturbed. 

It is also important to continue to fight for protections for marine mammals. The gray whale has had a reprieve, but its future is far from certain, and its fate depends on us. 

Suzanne Guldimann
23 February 2020

Three guesses where the whales are. The sight of whales inspires wonder and joy in people of all ages and backgrounds. That we have the opportunity to witness this extraordinary migration is thanks to the people who fought and continue to fight to save the whales, and the coast they swim past.  Whether one sees a whale or not, an hour or two spent on the beach in February or March watching for these ancient and amazing pilgrims is one of the blessings of the year on the California coast. 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Go and Catch a Falling Star

Padre's shooting star, Primula clevelandii: is a beautiful, ethereal and ephemeral native wildflower that blooms in winter and is one of the first harbingers of spring in Malibu and throughout the Santa Monica Mountains.

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

—John Donne, "Song"

In a wet year, shooting stars flourish, covering whole hillsides with delicate pink stars. 

It's easy to catch a shooting star in Malibu in February, when Padre's shooting star, a beautiful and ephemeral native wildflower, blooms, but this flowering is short-lived. Look fast to catch a glimpse of this rare beauty.

You know how they always tell you to memorize the scientific names of plants because thay remain constant? That is not also so. Padre's shooting star was recently reclassified from Dodecatheon clevelandii to Primula clevelandii. The change to primula highlight's this flower's place in the primrose family. Like garden varieties of primrose, P. clevelandii grows from a rosette of leaves. Clevelandii is in honor of San Diego civic leader and avid amateur naturalist Daniel Cleveland.

Daniel Cleveland (1838-1929) founded banks, facilitated railroads, hospitals, schools, libraries—buying 2000 books to start a San Diego library, and co-founded the Natural History Society of San Diego. In return, he is remembered in a host of scientific names for California flora and fauna, including Primula clevelandii.

Spring of 2020 isn't going to be a super bloom—early rain dried out quickly, leaving poor conditions for most wildflowers, but the shooting stars got an early start and are experiencing a moderately strong year.  I photographed this field of stars on the Conejo Valley side of the Santa Monica Mountains. This species likes the kind of north-facing hillside with rain seepage. Because it blooms early, it rarely faces competition from other plants.

Padre's shooting stars range from soft pink to cherry pink to almost white. This is the only member of the primula family in the Santa Monica Mountains, but  that pen-nib-shaped flower is a reminder that the exotic-looking cyclamens one buys at the nursery for a bit of winter color in the house are also members of the primula family.

An almost white shooting star. The only one in a vast field of pink.

You are more likely to spot this beautiful wildflower on the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains, especially in volcanic soils. This is a protected species, so please take only photographs and be careful not to step on the rosettes of leaves—this species is sensitive to soil compression and won't bloom again if it is trampled.

Shooting stars grow from a basal rosette of leaves. Like the garden variety of primrose, this plant is "spring deciduous," dying back after blooming and regrowing from its roots after the first winter rains.

The star-like flowers quickly turn into balloon-like seed capsules. When the seeds are mature, the capsule bursts open, shooting the seeds far and wide like a mini catapult.

The previous year's flower skeletons can provide a welcome clue of where to look for flowers the following year.

This year's flowers blooming among the ghosts of last year's bloom.

So, go and catch a shooting star, but hurry, because like the celestial phenomenon this beautiful flower is named for, it is a fleeting beauty, and this year's flowering will be shorter than usual due to dry conditions and drying winds. 

At the risk of jinxing myself by putting it in print, I'm hoping this post will be the first in a new series of natural history posts in 2020. If you enjoy the Malibu Post, blog please follow us on Instagram @malibupost, check out, where I write biweekly articles on nature, history and the environment, and look for a second volume of my book "Life in Malibu," arriving in time for the holidays.

Thanks for reading! Hope to see you here again soon,

Suzanne Guldimann
February 12, 2020

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Revisiting the Wasteland: One Year After Woolsey

The morning of November 8, 2018, in our Malibu garden, with one frail monarch butterfly aloft against a backdrop of disaster. The Woolsey Fire had already swept down Kanan and was headed for Point Dume, Malibu Park and Malibu West, on its way to the sea.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: humankind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

—T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton", Four Quartets

A fire whirl or tornado racing over the ridge at Latigo Canyon, viewed from our garden on the morning of November 9, 2018. The white speck is a fixed-wing aircraft. 

The words of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets have run in my head many times this year. "The crying shadow in the funeral dance/The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera" from “Burnt Norton” have been the voices of the Woolsey Fire and its aftermath.

Those of us who live within the burn zone or on its edges have toiled through our own Wasteland of dust and ashes this year. It’s a private hell that is hard to explain. Those of us who didn’t lose our homes coped without electricity, and with smoke damage, the isolation of losing our neighbors, and even a plague of rats, as well as with survivor’s guilt that our homes are still here, while our friends and neighbors just a few hundred feet away are not. 

Those who did lose their homes have more than grief to cope with, they continue to face an agonizing and unending tangle of red tape that has meant not one single family has yet finished rebuilding. 

A closeup of the fire at the end of our street,  roaring towards Point Dume. This was minutes before it jumped the Pacific Coast Highway.

My elderly mother did not want to leave on November 9, and I have no doubt that this intrepid octogenarian would have battled the blaze with a garden hose, but when it was clear the fire had jumped PCH and was headed our way it was time to leave. This photo, time-stamped 2:41 p.m., was our last backward look on our way out of the burn zone. 

Here's what happened shortly after we left. John Mazza took this photo of Mace Stanley fighting the blaze in the  gully between our streets, and about 300 yards from our house. These two neighbors were part of a small group of Point Dume residents who stayed to fight the fire and saved hundreds of homes. Without them, we and many other families would have had no homes to return to. 

A dear friend who stayed behind made it through the fire line and checked on our home a few days after the fire, sending a photo to me so I could reassure my mom that the house was still standing. In the chaos during the first 48 hours we had been told by another neighbor that it had burned. When I was finally able to check on the house a few days later, I found a red rose blooming in garden, another echo of "Burnt Norton."

I returned to the burn zone for the first time on November 16 for a press conference at Paramount Ranch.  While the officials spoke about the damage at the park and the restoration campaign that they were launching, a fire fighter was putting out hot spots under the one unburned part of the old Western town set. After the press event ended, I drove into Malibu for the first time since the fire. I've lived here all my life and have experienced the aftermath of many fires. Nothing prepared me for the devastation of the Woolsey Fire. The burn zone went on forever, every mountain peak, every valley, the horizon for as far as you could see was burned and bleak. 

Press gather at an oddly surreal press conference at Paramount Ranch on November 16, 2018.

The destruction in the historic Western Town film set was nearly absolute, but it did not have the visceral horror I would feel later at seeing homes destroyed. 

Fire crews were still working to put out hot spots while the press conference went on.

Power poles and other lumber treated with creosote continued to smolder for weeks, so did the roots of oak trees, burning under ground.

The Kanan roadblock on the morning of November 16. My press credentials got me through without difficulty. I picked up a hitchhiker on the other side of the blockade. He was trying to reach his family home on Triunfo Canyon Road on foot. They wouldn't let him drive through the barricade, but they didn't stop him from walking. 

The entire trip through the mountains looked like this.

This crew appeared to be looking at a hotspot.

The only people I encountered were Edison crews and a few fire fighters.

There were scenes like this one all along the route. 

Burned trees and guardrail and, unfortunately, the burned house of neighbors on our street.

The welcome sight of a dear friend and neighbor. Dru Ann Jacobson was one of the volunteers who stayed behind and made sure that all those who did had supplies. This brave group of neighbors fed the volunteer fire fighters, checked on elderly neighbors, and kept the community together not only without official help but in direct conflict with authoritarian government officials who treated disaster survivors like the enemy, refusing to allow supplies or even medicine in.

It was 10 days before we could go home. When we arrived, it was to a dark house. There would be no electricity for another five days, and no internet or landline phone for more than a month. I had the surreal experience of writing a piece for the Los Angeles Times without electricity or internet at home. I stood in the one spot in the garden where I had a direct line to the COW—cell on wheels—at Latigo Beach, with my cellphone and a list of dates and questions, while my friend on the other end of the line did my fact checking for me long distance. 

The week before, we put out the special Woolsey Fire edition of the Messenger Mountain News working from three different evacuation locations.

We now know that Malibu received no mutual aid for more than 20 hours and that the few fire engines in the community during the fire were given instructions to respond to "life and safety" 911 calls, and not participate in fire fighting, not even when an entire neighborhood might have been saved if fire crews waiting feet away had taken action to prevent the fire from jumping PCH. The Pt. Dume Bombers, and other stay behind volunteers saved hundreds of houses in my neighborhood. The official after action report for the county suggests that the fire department instill some "common sense" in the future to enable fire captains to release crews to deal with situations like houses burning right next to the fire station. An independent review of the fire released by the Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Foundation has this to say: "Failure to communicate directly and honestly with the public concerning this change in mission was a major factor in the loss of public trust and a contributor to emotional distress. Clear, timely and frequent communications are essential during a crisis event."

We learned to live in a disaster zone as the weeks stretched into months, and with the realization that the fire was only the start of the disaster. This is lower Corral Canyon on November 16.

This is where the fire stopped on the other side of my street. It was stopped thanks to the volunteers who stayed to fight. 

Other areas were not as fortunate. This is the side of PCH near Leo Carrillo State Park. The fire and flood damage was so severe in this area that some roads remain closed a year later.

The fire burned to the beach at Leo Carrillo, and on Point Dume and at Corral Beach. The fire followed the same pattern as the 1935 fire across Point Dume, but there were no houses there the last time it burned.

This burned out truck on our street corner appeared all over the media. I'm told it was driven while on fire away from a home and that it exploded. It became a popular photo op for "disaster tourists." I kept seeing people taking selfies on it. I think everyone was glad when it was finally towed away. The tragic burned out wreckage of people's houses were also popular destinations for internet narcissists. It was deeply disturbing to see these images cropping up on social media.

Roadwork was a priority, but it still took months to restore badly damaged mountain roads. Parts of Mulholland Highway remain closed, and work continues all over the burn area, where miles of guardrail is still being replaced.

The fire was barely out before storm season began. This crew was filling sandbags at Zuma Beach.

Volunteers came out in force to fill sandbags at badly burned Seminole Springs, to keep the debris-choked lake from flooding the homes that didn't burn.

A lot of that debris flowed down to the sea, depositing ash, silt, branches, telephone poles, fencing wire, and dead animals. It was ghastly, and remained a toxic mess for months. 

 This is a beautiful day in March, and the ocean is still brown with silt following a storm. 

We were still having dust storms in March, too. 

There was hope, too. Every year, someone decorates this roadside pine tree with Christmas ornaments. The tree was scorched in the fire, but in early December it was once again transformed into a Christmas tree, despite the destruction all around it.

Almost half of the Santa Monica Mountains burned in the Woolsey Fire, nearly 90 percent of National Park Service lands were impacted. When Malibu Creek State Park reopened in December it was a gift for everyone who loves our mountains. A friend and I went on that first day and saw new shoots of green in a burned forest of oaks. It was one of the most transformative and inspiring experiences I have ever been blessed to have.

Seeing the Malibu Creek mule deer herd alive and well was another moment of joy in the middle of disaster. Nature was recovering. We were going to get through this.

Recovery was slow, even with record rain. That white patch is a pile of bones burned almost to powder.

And then from the ashes flowers began to bloom.

And bloom.

Lupin bloomed on fire scarred hillsides.

That's the hill with the burned power pole at Paramount Ranch in the earlier photo, viewed through a field of goldfield flowers.

Hundreds of rare Plummer's mariposa lilies appeared in the burn zone in May and lingered into July, luminous and beautiful.

Fire followers like these fire poppies appeared—flowers whose seeds can remain dormant in the soil for decades, germinating only after a wildfire.

This ancient Valley oak was entirely consumed by the fire, but the smaller tree in the background survived and is resprouting.

Here's the view from our garden, six months after the fire. 

This is lower Corral Canyon, the same angle as the first image, six months later.

Here's the former Western Town set at Paramount Ranch a year after the fire.

The church set at Paramount Ranch was one of two buildings that didn't burn. You would never know today that this was a scene of utter destruction.

Zuma Canyon in December 2018.

 Zuma Canyon in June of 2019,  re-greened and blooming with fire-following phacelia flowers, giving hope to local residents. Nature at least is recovering. In time, the community will heal, but it will never be the same. The damage was too extensive. The scars run too deep.

Upper Trancas Canyon lunar landscape. It's hard to image this level of destruction ever healing, but healing has begun.

Humboldt lilies bloomed among the burned oak trees in Trancas Canyon in June.

I wasn’t here for the events marking the anniversary of the fire but I watched the photos and videos go up all over the internet: first the memorial for the lives tragically cut short at the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks on the eve of the fire, then the mountains and houses burning. It’s hard to watch, even now.

This map of the Woolsey Fire is from the county's official after action report. It shows the direction and extent of the fire that burned from the Santa Susana Mountains to the sea in less than a day. It was the biggest wildfire in Los Angeles County history but it is unlikely to be the last. Malibu, with all of its beauty, will always be a place on the edge of disaster. Living here comes at a price, one that is hard to comprehend until it comes time to pay it.

A friend describes these feelings as crisis fatigue—the anniversary of the Woolsey Fire coming in the middle of a fire season that has already caused anxiety with heavy smoke, evacuation treats, and power outages. 

This November, a year after Woolsey, I reflect again on Eliot’s words:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning
The end is where to start from.

Even now, a year later, we aren’t at the end of this disaster, but we have at least made it to the end of the first year. And maybe that is an end where we all can start to make a beginning, as we journey together through a changed landscape. We are traveling now to a different future than the one that lay ahead of us before the fire, but that doesn’t mean that in time it won’t also be a good future, one in which there is hope, and joy, fewer nightmares, more dreams. 

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

—T.S. Eliot

The Santa Monica Mountains have weathered many wildfires. They continue to endure.