Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hic Sunt Dracones—Here There Be Dragons

It doesn't actually say "here there be dragons," but Swedish mapmaker Olaus Magnus' "Carta Marina," created between 1527-39, warns of the perils of straying into undiscovered country with vivid and creative depictions of a strange and terrifying assortment of sea monsters.

We were talking of DRAGONS, Tolkien and I
In a Berkshire bar. The big workman
Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe
All the evening, from his empty mug
With gleaming eye glanced towards us:

"I seen 'em myself!" he said fiercely.

—C.S. Lewis

“I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.” 

—Ursula K. Le Guin

Hic Sunt dracones—here there be dragons, the words that once warned that the explorer was venturing off the map and into the unknown, still have the power to conjure marvels, even in an era of information overload where the monsters that lurked at the edge of the map have been vanquished to the realm of fiction. There may be maps to everything on every iPhone, Pad and Pod, but we are still drawn to the unknown. And it's comforting to know that while there may not be dragons there are still marvels.

Even the most jaded and world-weary citizen of the 21st century might find it easy to believe in dragons at sunset on a winter evening on the beach in Malibu, when there's a good chance of catching a glimpse of dolphins, sea lions and migrating gray whales.

The Bay Area and the Central Coast have a long tradition of sea monster sightings. Even the Channel Islands have their share—most notably a Loch Ness Monster-like creature off San Clemente Island, but for some reason, Malibu seems sadly deficient in the sea monster department (except for the occasional oar fish), which is surprising, considering the abundance of marine mammals that congregate off shore.

However, while one may know perfectly well that what one is looking at must be a marine mammal and not some strange cryptid, getting a good enough look to tell what it is can be a challenge. All of our marine mammal species can look remarkably like something that would be right at home among the sea monsters on the map at the top of the page.

Gray whales—looking as mysterious and massive as any of the sea monsters on the edges of Olaus Magnus' map—congregate in the shallow water of Westward Beach at sunset on a January evening. All photographs © 2015 S. Guldimann

We share our stretch of coast with an amazing assortment of marine mammals, including sea lions; harbor seals; Northern elephant seals; bottlenose dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Risso's dolphins; common dolphins; orca; gray whales; fin whales; humpback whales; minke whales; and blue whales, the largest animal on earth. 

The presence of these species is one of the reasons why much of the Malibu coast is designated an area of special biological concern and why the waters off Point Dume are now part of California's network of underwater reserves, officially known as Marine Protected Areas. 

Most of the larger marine mammals keep to the deep water well away from shore, but migrating gray whales often stay near the coast on the way to and from their breeding grounds in Baja. 

I wrote an article on the winter migration for a recent issue of the Malibu Surfside News. It wasn't my finest hour as a journalist. I cut out a section on the comparative size of the different whale species and ended up saying that the fin whale is smaller than the gray whale. It most definitely isn't. 

The fin whale is second only to the great blue whale in size. According to the American Cetacean Society, fin whales can grow to more than 80 feet long and weigh as much as 70 tons. Blues can grow to more than 100 feet in length and weigh more than 100 tons. Gray whales, in comparison, grow to a mere 40-50 feet in length and weigh an average of 30-40 tons.

A gray whale surfaces near shore at Zuma. 

Grays may be small compared to other cetaceans, but a 50-foot-whale surfacing just beyond the surfbreak is an awe-inspiring sight, and a surprisingly frequent one along the shore in Malibu from December through April.

That's a gray whale calf spouting, and not a Malibu species of the Loch Ness Monster, despite appearances.

Gray whales are the most commonly observed nearshore whale species, but fin whales, humpbacks and even blues can occasionally be spotted with the help of a pair of binoculars. Blue whales and fin whales exhale a cone-shaped spout of water that can be 30 feet high, while humpbacks produce a roundish, 10-foot-tall spout. Looking for the tell-tale blast of white water is often the easiest way to spot whales. 

Whales can be hard to spot, despite their size. Looking for spouts can be the best way to locate them. 

Sometimes the presence of sea birds and dolphins indicates there are whales in the area. Any disturbance in the water is worth a closer look with binoculars or a zoom lens.

Two gray whales followed by a triangular fin—evidence of a dolphin escort. 

Many dolphin species also prefer deep water. It's rare to encounter Dall's porpoise or Risso's dolphin near shore, but both species can be found off Point Dume where the continental shelf drops off into deep water. 

This unfortunate Risso's dolphin washed up dead just north of Leo Carrillo State Park. I've never seen a live one close to shore, although they are common in the deep water further out, where they gather in large pods.

Dall's porpoise—a compact, small member of the dolphin family with black and white coloring that looks a little like the orca's—seems to prefer cold water and reportedly only turns up in winter.

Risso's dolphins are large (10-13 feet long), blunt-nosed dolphins that also go by the wonderful name "grampus."  They are often seen in the channel, where they gather in large pods, often with other dolphin and whale species, but they almost never come close to shore.

The most frequently encountered dolphins at Malibu's beaches are the bottlenose dolphin, the common dolphin and the Pacific white-sided dolphin. White-sided dolphins are usually seen farther out, but they sometimes come fairly close to shore. However, the common and bottlenose dolphins will swim right into the surf and are often seen along the coast just yards from the beach. 

Although these look like they ought to be Pacific white-sided dolphins, they are common dolphins. The common dolphin is widely distributed and can be found around the world. It's the dolphin that is Apollo's sacred messenger in Greek mythology. It's also sacred to the Chumash people. We do occasionally get a visit from another, much larger, member of the dolphin family that also has distinctive white patches—the orca, but confirmed sightings are relatively rare.

Here's a helpful size and shape comparison of the bottlenose and common dolphin, borrowed from Wikipedia. The top dolphin (image created by Kuzon) is the larger, longer, bottlenose dolphin. The bottom image (created by Chris Huh) shows a common dolphin.

It can often be hard to identify what one is seeing. In this case, the size of the animal in comparison to the surfers, and the shape of its fin indicate this is a bottlenose dolphin.

Here's the same bottlenose dolphin with what appears to be a smaller common dolphin. 

The most conspicuous marine mammal in Malibu has to be the sea lion. These gregarious, intelligent, noisy and fun-loving pinnipeds are a favorite here at the Malibu Post. One of my first articles for the blog was about them, and I never get tired of observing them.

Harbor seals and Northern elephant seals also occasionally visit the Malibu coast. Adult elephant seals are massive—males can be 16 feet long and weigh more than 5000 pounds. They spend much of their lives in the open ocean and are rarely seen near the shore in Malibu. 

However, young pups are occasionally spotted on the beach here, either resting or sometimes in distress (injured or ill marine mammals should be reported to the California Wildlife Center's marine mammal rescue team—310-458-WILD, and donations are urgently needed this time of year to supply rescued animals with medical care and the huge quantities of fish they need to eat during recovery).

A trio of sea lions play in the surf of Point Dume. Surfers may think they invented the laid-back, fun-loving California beach lifestyle, but the sea lions were already the living embodiment of that sun-and-fun philosophy long before the first human surfer arrived on the scene.

Harbor seals are less numerous in Malibu than their sea lion cousins, but there are usually a few around, especially in western Malibu. Elephant and harbor seals lack the powerful front fins that enable sea lions to move quickly and efficiently on land and are rarely seen on the shore—Malibu's beaches probably aren't secluded enough. Like sea lion and dolphins, harbor seals are intelligent and curious and like to check out what the swimmers or divers are up to. They've also been known to drop in on surfers. 

Elephant and harbor seals are sleek, strong underwater swimmers and are hard to spot in the water. If what you are watching is leaping out of the water like a mad acrobat, or popping up to watch you watching it, it's probably a sea lion.

Could this, at last, be a sighting of an elusive Malibu sea monster? It looks like a fairly convincing sea serpent, the sort that wraps sinuous coils around ships and squeeze them to bits.

Alas, this Loch Ness Monster look-alike is just part of the Point Dume sea lion colony, on their way home to the rookery for the night. 

The only authentic sea monster I know of in Malibu is this one, and it swims not in the sea but in my friends' Point Dume garden.

The American Cetacean Society offers all kinds of useful information on whales and dolphins, and the Los Angeles chapter, which is currently seeking whale census volunteers, provides links to whale watching trips, daily updates on the census, and much more on its website. Both sites are well worth a visit.

There are all kinds of opportunities to learn about the things that once existed beyond the edges of the map and that even today we are only just beginning to understand. One of the best opportunities is simply taking the time to go and look. Who knows what one might see? 

Suzanne Guldimann
21 January 2015

A mama and baby gray whale rest in the calm water off Point Dume.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Sailing onto the Rocks: The Failed Plan to Turn Malibu into a Yachting Center

Yachts set sail from the Malibu Quarterdeck Club in this artist's renedering of the harbor and private luxury yacht club proposed for the Malibu Lagoon in 1947. The club house was designed by Cliff May. The nearly mile-long breakwater is decorated with a faux lighthouse. The developer of this particular version of a Malibu harbor wanted it so badly that he started construction before getting a permit and in the middle of massive controversy.

The Malibu Times had a front page article this week on how developers Steve Soboroff—owner of the property destined for the "Whole Foods in the Park" development, and David Resnick—owner of the Malibu Bay Company, with plans for more than 120,000 square feet of new commercial development between them in the Civic Center area, have filed suit against the City of Malibu over Measure R, the initiative passed by 60 percent of Malibu voters in November that requires developers like these to obtain voter approval for new commercial development in excess of 20,000 square feet.

The case will be heard in federal court and the outcome, whatever it is, may take years to be decided. It's hard to know at this point what the developers hope to gain through the lawsuit. While there's a good chance that Malibu voters may have passed somewhat scaled-down versions of both development projects through the Measure R process, it seems unlikely that the developers will succeed in challenging the measure's constitutionality. But the developers filing the suit may have other motives. They may hope to reach a settlement with the city. And they wouldn't be the first developers in Malibu who refused to let go of a cherished plan even when the entire community united against it. 

The prize for persistence in pursuing what may be the most universally unwelcome project in Malibu history goes to the series of developers who sought to build a Malibu yacht club and harbor, a project that, like a grade z horror movie monster, simply would not die, returning every decade from the 1940s to the '70s, despite constant opposition from the community. In the end, the community won. But it was a long, strange, journey. 

The first plan to build a Malibu marina was proposed by a developer named Hiram Helm. In 1927, Helm released plans for a massive yacht harbor and luxury development on 400 acres at Miller Ranch, along the coast at what is now Point Mugu State Park. An article in the August 21, 1927 issue of the Los Angeles Times calls the project the "Malibu Palisades," and states that the "seaside residential and resort project involving a five-year development program and the expenditure of $5,000,000 is to be launched early in 1928 on 400 acres of the Miller ranch bordering the Los Angeles county line in Ventura county and fronting on the new Roosevelt Highway," and that it would feature "hotels, golf courses and homes, fresh water lagoons, a breakwater and yacht harbor."  

There have been three plans to turn this stretch of coast west of Malibu into a yacht harbor, marina and luxury housing development. The earliest was in 1927, the most recent, in 1994. Photo © 2015 S. Guldimann

A similar plan emerged again decades later in the 1970s on the still undeveloped three-mile stretch of coast west of Deer Creek, known as the Mansdorf property, and again in 1994, when a politician named Carter Ward, who was running for Ventura County supervisor, proposed a scheme to develop a "world class marina," on the site, with 3500 boat slips, according to the L.A. Times.

 Another yacht harbor was proposed in 1929 as part of the La Costa development. La Costa was the first section of the 17,000-acre Malibu Rancho to be subdivided and sold. The February 1947 issue of The Californian Magazine has this to say about the plan:  [May Knight Rindge] floated an $8 million bond issue and plans were drawn for lush clubs, a yacht harbor and other accoutrements of a proper Riviera."

May Rindge, who became the sole owner of the Malibu Rancho when her husband, Frederick Hastings Rindge, died in 1905,  was forced to sell the property to raise funds to continue her increasingly expensive fight with the county and the state over the easement across the ranch for a coast route, now Pacific Coast Highway.

The article states that "the depression and the jailing of promoter Harold G. Ferguson left the plan to fade on the blueprints." Ferguson went to San Quentin for shady business dealings, and the bondholders foreclosed, leaving May Rindge, now more deeply in debt than ever, to cope with the aftermath.

It's unclear whether the La Costa or west Malibu marina plans ever advanced to a more concrete form than pipe smoke and artists' renderings, but the Quarterdeck Club at the Malibu Lagoon nearly became a reality. Twice. Defeating the project would be one of the biggest environmental fights in Malibu's history.

Gulls enjoy the sandbar at what is now Malibu Lagoon State Park and Surfrider Beach, but was once slated to be dredged and bulldozed for a luxury private yacht club and marina. © 2105 S. Guldimann

The Malibu Quarterdeck Club and Yacht Harbor development was the brainchild of Edward D. Turner. Turner saw the Malibu Lagoon as “a site for the construction of a yachting center in the Southland comparable with the famed Miami Quarterdeck Club.”

Cliff May, the architect famed for developing the California ranch house, was enlisted to design a clubhouse and surrounding grounds in a “style reminiscent of the South Seas.” The plans called for “hand-hewn redwood with aquamarine tile roofing. A 14-foot glass windshield, constructed of specially treated glass and metals and inverted like the prow of a ship, will be placed atop the breakwater to protect bathers and those dining on the outdoor terraces and in dining rooms,” plans for the project state.

The Malibu Marina has to be one of the worst ideas in Malibu history and an ecological disaster, but the designs for the Cliff May-designed club house are spiffy. In some alternate reality it would have been lovely to sit on the terrace and sip one of those 1950s drinks with the pineapple and the little umbrellas and admire the ships sailing by. Not lovely enough, however, to be worth sacrificing the Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach.

"Within a year it is hoped that this prediction will have become a reality," The Californian enthused. "Motorboats and yachts of club members should, by then, be able to anchor in the dredged-out creek delta. And in another year the ultra-modern Quarterdeck Club, designed by Cliff May, should be abuzz with its 1000 members bent upon getting their two thousand dollars worth of pleasure. Plenty of opportunity will be offered them. Aside from the luxurious club, its shielded swimming pool, sand areas and guest rooms, there will be the feature attraction: Southern California's only harbor owned by a private club. It will accommodate 750 small craft in the inner harbor and larger vessels along the outer breakwater. Extra fancy is a planned two-story boat garage equipped with boat elevators and providing "valet" service for parking all kinds of pleasure craft up to thirty-footers. This is a Riviera development of no mean sort."

The optimistic Turner built a pair of Quonset huts on the west side of the lagoon to house the heavy equipment required for the project and began work dredging before final approvals from the county were in place.

An audience gathers for a ceremony commemorating the "driving of the first pile" in September 1947 at the site of the Quarterdeck Club House. The cars and crowd of onlookers are dwarfed by steam shovels and stacks of lumber. This photo is from the Los Angeles Library Digital Archive. More photos of the same event can be viewed here.

However, Rhoda Adamson, Rindge’s daughter, who still owned the Adamson House with her husband Merritt Adamson, vehemently opposed the plan, as did William Huber, the owner of the Malibu Pier, and other members of the community. The battle raged for over a year in front of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

The headline of the front page of the June 20, 1947 Malibu Times.

One of the main arguments is the one that would lead eventually to the Coastal Act and the formation of the Coastal Commission: public access. The first generation of surfers at Surfrider and the public who only achieved access to the beaches at Malibu in 1929, when the coast route opened, argued that the private yacht club would bar the public from the beach and destroy an important public resource. 

The caption for this photo from the June 1947 Californian Magazine describes the first generation of Malibu surfers as "ex-G.I.s from Santa Monica...they practically live here. The fight over the Quarterdeck Club was the first time that the surfers' right to access the beach was a major issue in a Malibu development fight, but it wouldn't be the last. Surfers voiced the concern that the breakwater would ruin the surf, and expressed concern that the beach would be closed to the public and accessible only to the wealthy club members. Other residents raised concerns about the impact of the breakwater on coastal erosion and questioned the project's authority to close the swimming beach to the west of Malibu Creek used by Colony residents and other beachgoers.

In September of 1947, Turner began excavating for the foundation of the yacht club. In November he held a BBQ in the Malibu Colony celebrating the driving of the first pile for the clubhouse. Two weeks later he was dead, leaving his stockholders scrambling to retrieve their uninvested capital.

Turner, who was staying with friends in the Malibu Colony, was reportedly found dead still sitting on the sofa in the living room where his hosts last say him the night before. If life was a noir mystery novel, he would have been poisoned or shot by a project opponent, but his death was determined to have been from natural causes.

Edward Turner, in 1947, wearing a jaunty nautical hat. 

For several years after Turner's death, supporters of the project continued to produce press releases stating that construction was imminent, but it wasn't until the county released plans to build a multilane freeway through Malibu Canyon that the yacht harbor project was revived.

The major second effort to develop the project was spearheaded by Henry Guttman, president of the "Malibu Improvement Association." Guttman's other "improvements" seem to consist of the row of office buildings on Malibu Road between the fire station and Webb Way. However, he reportedly secured the blessing of the county and the federal government in 1966 and arranged to use the hundreds of tons of rubble that would theoretically be blasted from the mountains for the freeway to build an even more ambitious breakwater, harbor and 300-home country club development.

The 1966 proposal for a Malibu Marina was much larger and more ambitious than the 1947 development scheme. This plan depended on construction of the proposed Malibu Freeway, which would have transformed the Civic Center area into an interchange and probably rendered much of Malibu unlivable. This artist's rendering of Guttman's marina plan is from an ad in the July 22, 1962 Evening Outlook. It doesn't show the epic breakwater extending a mile into the bay or the proposed Malibu Freeway that was part of the project.

“One of Malibu’s fondest dreams, that of establishing a small craft harbor, with all its attendant lodging, dining and recreational facilities, now seems closer to reality,” a 1966 brochure advertising the proposed marina states.

“The county has approved the idea of private financing for the harbor and the Federal Government has expressed interest in the project since being assured space within it for Coast Guard facilities, all that remains is the lease negotiations with the state, bilateral approval of the over-all project, and completion of the various stages of development leading up to the Marina as planned by the Improvement Corporation and the state.”

As one of his selling points, Guttman used statistics released by the Los Angeles Regional Planning Commission in 1966 that estimated that the population of Malibu would expand to 117,000 by 1980. 

If one harbor wasn't enough, a second yacht club corporation was founded in 1962 with the intent to build a marina at Point Dume. There was talk at first of using Big Dume Cove, but when the official plans surfaced in 1971, the proposed marina was sited at Paradise Cove.

The powers-the-be chose Paradise Cove as the site of a marina in 1971. They did it without bothering to ask the residents who lived there and had already arranged for the Army Corps of Engineers to survey the site before they were hit by backlash from the community. Today, the view down the coast towards Paradise Cove looks very much the same way it did when the marina was first proposed in the 1960s. © 2015 S. Guldimann

There was tremendous pressure to build a Malibu marina (or two) in the '60s and early '70s. Yacht harbors were springing up all over the coast. Construction began on Marina Del Rey in 1953 and was completed in 1965; on the other side of Malibu, the Channel Islands Harbor broke ground in 1960. In 1972, there was a push for a Santa Monica marina as well. Project opponents were told repeatedly that they were standing in the way of "progress." 

Paradise Cove in 2015. This beach has faced numerous issues of access, water quality and land use, but at least it isn't a marina and yacht club. © 2015 S. Guldimann

Among my dad's papers, I have a petition from the early 1970s, signed by more than 500 people protesting the Malibu marina plans. It states:

"We, the undersigned, request that no further funds be appropriated for, or expended by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the State of California, or the County of Los Angeles for the study, design, or construction of a marina, boat harbor, or related facilities along the fragile Malibu seashore.

"The narrow coastal Malibu bluffs and beaches are a priceless resource, the last unspoiled coastline [and] of major importance to the entire Los Angeles Metropolitan region.

"Construction of a marina on the Malibu coastline will deplete sands transported by the longshore current to remaining beaches in Malibu, the City of Santa Monica, the City of Los Angeles and other South Bay communities; will be destructive to marine creatures; tidepools; and the last economically important giant kelp beds in three counties; and will bring unbridled development; traffic congestion; and visual, air, and noise pollution to the adjacent fresh air and recreational resource, the coastal slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains."

Big Dume Cove, also known as Pirate's Cove, was one of the sites under consideration for a marina and yacht harbor. Today, it's a nature preserve. © 2015 S. Guldimann

The yacht club developers weren't troubled by any of these things, or the plight of California brown pelicans, great blue herons, snowy plover or other resident shore and wetland bird species—most were rarely seen, with populations hovering on the brink of extinction due to DDT use, but the people of Malibu were concerned. The environmental movement was gaining serious momentum and the projects met furious opposition.

The petition states "return to Malibu Citizens for Good Community Planning, Coastal Committee, c/o John Guldimann." The battle for good community planning is still being fought but at least the fight over yacht harbors was won. 

The September 3, 1970 issue of the Los Angeles Times features a story about the Malibu Freeway project, which was beginning to buckle under pressure from grassroots opposition. It states that "City Traffic Commissioners Anticipate Reauthorization After 'Ecology Hysteria' Dies Down."  

Unfortunately for the commissioners, their insane optimism was unfounded. The ecological movement didn't die down, it gathered strength. In 1972, the Coastal Act was finally passed. It would take several years for coastal protections to go into effect—the first draft of the coastal development guidelines was only released in 1976, the year the the commission's authority was extended indefinitely. By the early 1980s, even the most determined developers had to abandon their plans to transform Malibu into a "yachting center."

Dad and the other activists who fought and defeated these massive projects never got much recognition. There were no Dolphin Awards or Malibu tiles.  The reward was knowing that they went up against developers with massive resources and incentives and little regard for local concerns, and against entities like the Army Corps of Engineers, and won. 

'That they were eventually able to defeat the freeway and the yacht club/harbor/marina plans, and save Surfrider, the Malibu Lagoon, and the Point Dume Headlands and Paradise Cove was the real reward. 

Today, Malibu has a population of 12,861, not 170,000. The Malibu Lagoon, Surfrider Beach, Big Dume Cove and the old Miller Ranch are all recognized as critical habitat and important recreational, scenic and historic resources that need to be protected and preserved. They are all State Parks properties, and part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. They are open to everyone, instead of being private yacht clubs accessible by only a wealthy few. 

A surfer catches a sunset wave at Surfrider. Malibu has managed to hang on to its cultural identity as a beach community that values the natural resources and beauty that surrounds it, thanks to the remarkable individuals who have been willing to put their hearts into the fight to save what is special. © 2015 S. Guldimann

Malibu activists continue to fight to save Malibu's resources for the future. The city's mission statement says that "Malibu citizens have historically evidenced a commitment to sacrifice urban and suburban conveniences in order to protect unaltered natural resources and rural characteristics..." Malibu's citizens have also fought like wildcats to preserve those resources and will continue to do so, regardless of threats or lawsuits.

If the developers had a better grasp on Malibu history, they might have a better understanding of how to work with the community, instead of against it. Of course, if they really understood Malibu, maybe they wouldn't want to bulldoze it in the first place, and we could all spend our spare time on the beach, enjoying the sunset, instead of fighting to ensure the next generation will have a beach and everything else that makes Malibu, in Frederick Hasting Rindge's words, "very near terrestrial paradise," and not a yacht harbor or a "boutique shopping destination."

Suzanne Guldimann
9 January 2015

 Sunset in Malibu, January 8, 2015. Photo © 2015 S. Guldimann