Happy Earth Day! Every day, actually, is a new opportunity to appreciate, advocate for and be responsible stewards for our planet’s treasures. I was keenly aware of that on a recent trip to the coast, where visitors can see the healthy results of conservation.
One extraordinary weekend, we camped at Salt Point State Park, near Jenner and Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast. Gorgeous, unusually warm, windless weather greeted us as we set up camp, then hiked down to the coastal bluffs. Below lay huge swaths of bull kelp – which grows in kelp forests in California’s marine protected areas, supporting rockfish and countless other marine organisms. Pools in the intertidal zone teemed with urchins, sea stars, barnacles, and mussels – as well as the imperiled red abalone – the slow-growing mollusk with its luminous shell. We frolicked here among tafoni sandstone formations studded with lichens, as if in a playground all our own.
An article in Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat intrigued us, and we took to heart the inspiration behind Thomas Cochrane’s 2017 book, Shaping the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast — Exploring the Coastal Geology of Northern California, witnessing on this road trip the interplay of wind, water, and earth that shape our ever-changing coast.
Geology has always gripped B. and me. John McPhee’s compelling Assembling California chronicles our state’s geological history (and prehistory) through the lens of the plate tectonic revolution – which explains how plates that the continents are built on shift along fault lines. After reading this, we pursued more beyond our university study.
Landscapes, and how they change throughout history, are always fascinating. At a Laguna de Santa Rosa lecture, Dr. Jane Nielson of the USGS educated us in greater detail on plate tectonics, processes millions of years old. This tireless water activist (and environmentalist of the year in 2010) showed how igneous (or volcanic, such as basalt or granite), sedimentary (like chert or sandstone), and metamorphic (such as slate; these can originate as either igneous or sedimentary) rocks are formed. She also told us where we might find local examples of these formations.
Salt Point sandstone was quarried in the 19th century and used to construct many of the buildings in San Francisco, as was much of the wood logged up and down the coast. In our explorations, we could see massive slabs of sandstone, drill holes and eye bolts still extant from the stone masons of long ago. Tafoni refers to the rock erosion – caused by seasonal wetting and drying – that sculpts the otherworldly knobs, caverns, ridges, and spires.
We examined the rocks as a harbor seal swimming by eyed us warily before diving near the edge where rock met ocean – a visible reminder of how volcanic activity, water, and erosion altered this border over time, and continue even now. It grew windier at the outcropping on the point, and we walked south along the bluff trail, where about 50 feet away several other seals basked on rocks of basalt and chert.
The light was sublime, the sea and sky a thousand shades of blue, from a deep dark ocean to a heavenly cerulean above. B. spotted a whale spout to the south, about halfway to the horizon. I was thrilled we saw it together, as he’d missed the once-in-a-lifetime whale-viewing experience I’d had earlier at Limantour Beach in Point Reyes. We saw two, three, up to five spouts. The whales (probably grays, making their way back up north in their spring migration) continued to circle around, probably fishing, then spy-hopped, breaching, flashed their flukes and flippers. They swam a bit farther south, and we sat, watching them.
To see these gentle leviathans in their own vast playground environment – which still retains such mystery for us humans – was magnificent. Beholding these amazing cetaceans is a privilege, and exemplifies why opening these and other conservation areas to oil drilling and other harmful industries is unthinkable. With the current state of climate change and pollution, the need is already too urgent to protect the fragile existence these and other creatures and plants forge, with the great balance of life in the ocean.