Sunday, March 20, 2016

E-seals in the raw - sex on the beach?

Elephant seals en route to procreation at a rookery along the central California coast north of San Simeon.
Elephant seals surprised me during our recent road trip along California's Central Coast, or perhaps it was my reaction to them that surprised. I was captivated also by otters, harbor seals, sea lions, and great throngs of swooping, diving and gliding birds, but the E-seals put on an entertaining show with their mating behaviors, which made me curious. They're migratory; what are they doing here on a six-mile stretch of beach not far from Hearst Castle?  

The seals also brought out in me a tendency to anthropomorphize—ascribe to animals or plants human attributes.  For example, in the photo above, I'm wondering if she's consenting and if he's giving her a love bite. Is she moaning with pleasure, or is she revving up to screech. (It was the later.) 

Considering the realities of these wild creatures, I don't think they ask, or grant, permission. Elephant seals must do their procreation business according to their internal programming, and that's all there is to it. This is not sex, with all its nuances, complexities, and implications. This is mating.

But look at her! She's unhappy! And the bull! A rapist! And he's biting her! He'll finish his rutting and go on to another conquest, that bastard!  

According to my mate, PK, anthropomorphizing is just plain wrong. I can't help it. Much of my early life included a dog, and everybody I know, except perhaps PK, agrees that dogs have emotions. 

Dogs are one thing, and some would argue, so are horses, pigs, parrots, cats, and other creatures kept as pets by humans who look into animal eyes and see love reflected. But I admit my approach is a stretch when it comes to elephant seals. They are so "other", so alien, far removed from all but the most boorish human behaviors. 
Tenderness is not in the bull elephant seal's DNA. This mom's pup - about to be weaned - seems oblivious (resigned?) to the mother's  protests, and the rest of the seals on the beach could care less.  Like all wild creatures, they are driven by instinct, chemistry and mysterious forces that have yet to be explained. What would it be like to be so thoroughly programmed?  So without having to make choices. Still, life is difficult and dangerous for the seals
A month ago I didn't know that elephant seals existed, let alone what they're like, what they do to survive. The seal beach scene was at once intriguing, amusing, and wonder-producing. Docents from the local San Simeon Friends of the Elephant Seal were eager to provide information, and I was all ears. Later, I visited the website and devoured every word.


That lusty male above may weigh up to 6,000 pounds and be as long as 16 feet. He's a survivor who instinctively knows he must dive 1,000 to 3,000 feet for prey, and also to escape sharks and killer whales that consider seals snack bars. He routinely holds his breath for 30 minutes, although record dives are more than two hours. During mating season, December through February, he contests for breeding rights for up to 100 days without food or water. During a male's two annual migrations, both lasting up to four months, he dives and forages continuously without touching land.  

The prominent proboscis for which elephant seals are named is not handsome
but it enables him to  produce a mighty and intimidating roar.

The object of his affection may weigh up to 1,800 pounds and grow to 12 feet in length. She migrates once a year for ten months, during which she is alone and in the dark most of the time. While she births, nurses and weans her pup at the rookery, she fasts and loses 40 percent of her hard-won weight. She's one tough mama.

It's dark down there

While diving, E seals are mostly in the dark because of the depths they achieve. Their eyes adapt to the bright light of the beach  and also to the darkness of the deep. They depend on bioluminescence to get their bearings.

Somehow, after repeated diving and surfacing for thousands of miles in the direction they're programmed to go, they know when and where to congregate to molt, spar, give birth, mate, and rest. The process is a biological wonder and mystery.

Everybody needs a beach vacation

Both males and females travel between 15,000 and 20,000 miles a year. Without coming ashore or taking breaks, except for a few minutes at the surface now and then, they dive and forage, dive and forage. Alone. What a life. One source suggests that the seals catch some ZZZs while diving, when their heart rates slow to three beats per minute, and all sorts of metabolic changes occur  to preserve oxygen and prevent the bends. But still. They never stop. Except for when they arrive at their rookery  and then it's like spring break without the alcohol.

The E seals have been continuously swimming, diving, foraging for months, and the females are pregnant  to boot. They've had little sleep, as we know it, but have put on enough weight to do what needs to be done: birthing and mating at a rookery. No sooner has the female had her pup, and lost 40 percent of her body weight in a month of nursing (without eating or drinking anything herself), she goes into estrus and takes on the sperm that will eventually produce a pregnancy. Then she splits to dive into the food-filled darkness for another ten months. When it's finally time to return to the rookery, she deserves a vacation! As do the males, who have expended copious energy surviving at sea, establishing dominance for mating purposes, and then "servicing" every female they can force their ponderous bodies upon. 
Despite the determined lounging, which conjures scantily clad listless and basted human sun worshippers, the seals produce a rich cacophony to merge with the music of crashing surf and roiling water. An alpha male, stirred from lethargy by instinct, hormones, or whatever, rears up to pursue a female or two or three. The seals crowd together, and one might presume that they're inherently social, but soon they will leave the rookery to the pups, and plunge into the deep for the next eight to ten months utterly alone.

What about the pups?

Pups weigh between 60 and 80 pounds at birth, and are three to four feet long. They're weaned in four weeks, when they will weigh between 250 and 350 pounds, an astounding weight gain. Seal milk begins with 12 percent fat and ends with 60 percent. By contrast, human milk is 4 percent fat. No wonder seal moms lose 40 percent of their weight.

A month after birthing and feeding, the mother goes into estrus and mates several times (joyless conjugation, in my opinion) before abruptly weaning her pup and slipping into the sea, not to be seen again for ten months. Family life is over. There is no evidence that pups and moms reconnect.

Pups are vulnerable to losing track of mom, not finding a surrogate and starving; being inadvertently crushed by an alpha male in pursuit of its mother. And if the tides are high and the weather is bad, they can be washed out to sea, where they can't survive.  They need a couple months to be strong enough to handle the surf, travel far offshore, and begin the endless diving and foraging to survive. 

The rookery at San Simeon is home to 23,000 seals of the Piers Blancas group. A schedule of what's going on month to month is available here: website .

This seal is obviously enjoying the sun's warmth after long months
of the cold and dark of ocean depths.  Can
only humans enjoy the sun's touch? Apparently not.

If ever you get to San Simeon and the Hearst Castle area, be sure to build in an hour or so for seal watching. For live cam viewing and more information about these mysterious creatures, visit this website. 

If nothing else, this video provides the cacophony of the
beach sex scene. The females make a lot of noise protesting. 
And here's a live cam view of the rookery. In late March
pups have the beach to themselves, building muscle
and skill in the tide pools. Mom is long gone, and pups
must fast until venturing out to sea.

Travel Note
The elephant seal rookery viewing area is four miles north of the Hearst Castle along California Highway 1. See the castle up there on the hilltop? Everyone says it's fabulous, but we had limited time and opted for the seals. This photo was taken near a wonderful family restaurant, Sebastian's Store, which is also a Hearst Ranch winery.  We had lunch there overlooking this scene. Lunch was super and reasonable, in case you find yourself in the neighborhood. We did visit the Castle's visitor center, where we learned visitors are bussed to the castle to take a tour of their choice.The cost is $25 per person and requires about three hours. I looked at photos on line. Opulent to the max. Maybe next time? 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Salmon of Grace and Ginger

My favorite salmon recipe! I've been trying for decades to find, or create, one this good. Credit goes to Grace McGran.
If you just want the recipe, scroll a bit. I'm not going to BS too long.

But keep reading if you're curious about how I finally found THE best salmon recipe that will be my go-to choice for entertaining as well as dinner for two, and relieving my angst about what to do with boxes of fish, mostly salmon, from PK's Alaskan fishing trips.

It's all about Grace. She lives in Canada. One reason I like (ha ha) Facebook is that it was the conduit for reuniting us a few years back. We had a 90-minute phone conversation last week. She and I met on the Oregon coast in the 1970s at roughly the same time that I met PK. It was a time of  great change and upheaval. In our own ways, both Grace and I made choices during the few months we were neighbors that have reverberated through the decades. Think about it young people, when you reach a crossroads, what you do matters forever. 

Grace (she was then called Diane) and I made an instant connection back in the day. She lived next door. She was a gardener, a pie maker, and a cook. Oh, and she sang just like Joni Mitchell. No kidding. She was also a beauty, inside and out. 

I remember her making us a stir fry Asian dinner, during which I learned basic tricks such as; don't saute the veggies all at the same time. Duh. But I didn't know. 

We had fishermen friends and what seemed like an endless supply of salmon. I watched her tuck salmon parts into holes where she planted corn seeds. She made things grow and rejoiced in the results. I don't recall that we ever had a salmon meal together. Salmon excess was just so common in those days. I was fresh from North Dakota. I fed a lot of cooked salmon to our dog.

During our chat last week, however,  I asked for her favorite salmon recipe. 
She said something dismissive like, "Oh, it's just so simple. I don't have anything special." But then she provided general directions. Like me, she often wings it when cooking, using what's on hand and making recipe changes at her whim. Only a few things were mentioned as ideal for success: a cast-iron pan; fresh diced ginger, lemon juice or some other acidic ingredient, sesame oil and maple syrup. Got it. Did it. (twice, to make sure.)

Salmon of Grace and Ginger, recipe
Perfect for two. 

  • skin-on salmon fillet, about a pound
  • knob of fresh ginger, minced (I tried grating it but it was too fine)
  • salt and pepper 
  • avocado oil, or other high-heat oil, enough to coat the pan
  • butter to taste, optional
  • sesame salad dressing,  1/3 cup to 1/2 cup (recipe follows)
  • scant maple syrup (optional)


Use a cast iron pan, or another heavy-duty pan. Mince a thumb or two of ginger. (I grated it my first try, and that didn't work as well as mincing.) Apply salt and pepper and chopped ginger to the skinless side of a skin-on salmon filet, about one pound. I understand from Grace, that this recipe can be baked after the initial skinless-side down frying operation. 

NOTE: If you double or triple the recipe, and do not own a huge cast-iron pan, you'll need to pre heat the oven to 375, fry your salmon in two or three batches, and bake in a pre-heated oven for 10-12 minutes following the frying step, checking halfway for doneness.

Heat the pan to medium-high and add avocado or other oil. When oil is sizzling, carefully place the fillet skinless side down in the hot oil and fry for about four minutes. Use a wide spatula to turn the fillet to skin-side down. Cover and cook for about five minutes. Check for doneness after four minutes. Add butter to the top, if desired, and poke holes for butter to soak into fish. Remove the fillet to a plate at the point of desired doneness. I like it moist in the thickest area, barely done.  

To the pan, add the salad dressing and reduce for a few minutes. It doesn't take much time with salad dressing, which is more than half oil. 

You may adapt the dressing and/or use purchased Asian types. But you may want to try the recipe provided because it is delicious! I should call it Laurie's Glory Sesame Dressing as it was provided by that longtime friend about 20 years ago and is my favorite dressing and marinade, and now, salmon glaze.  See bottom of post, following photos.

I've fried the skinless side of the fillet, turned it over and cooked it skin side down,  and fork-tested for doneness. In the meantime, I've applied a little butter to the top, as everything is better with butter. Correct?

I used this gourmet salt in place of regular salt the
second time I made this recipe. It cost a lot of $$ and
I couldn't tell the difference. Either way, tastes great.

The peeled ginger was how much I used to cover a
one-pound salmon fillet.

After salt, pepper, and ginger are applied, it's OK to let it sit for 10 minutes.

Avocado oil is a healthy oil which withstands high-heat frying. 

Start by frying, for a few minutes,  the skinless gingered, salted and peppered side
 at medium high heat in a cast-iron pan. Take care not to burn the ginger.
Flip it over (carefully) to fry skin-side down. Cover and cook 4-5 minutes.
Test for doneness after 4 minutes or less. 

Pour about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of salad dressing into the hot pan and reduce for a few minutes, stirring to capture the browned bits at the bottom of the pan.  Then pour the reduction onto the cooked salmon and serve ASAP.  Heavenly!

Laurie's Glory Sesame Dressing, recipe

  • 6-8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup sesame oil
  • 1/3 cup good quality soy sauce
  • 1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/3 cup rice vinegar (or balsamic), or fresh lemon juice
  • 1 T Dijon mustard
  • 2 T maple syrup, honey or balsamic glaze (my fave)

Use a food processor.
Process the garlic until finely minced. Add the other ingredients and whirr until emulsified. The mustard helps with emulsifying, I'm told. This dressing keeps in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Loving Death Valley, part 2

PK hiking on a loop trail out of the Zabriskie Point overlook. 
PK and I passed through Death Valley in the spring of 2015 en route to explorations of the red and gold glories in the American Southwest. That was our third visit to Death Valley, and we stayed only one night, thinking, somehow, that we'd "seen it." It wasn't true, of course, but still, we doubted we'd be back anytime soon.

Then the "super bloom" occurred, and due to an upheaval (Cancer Club) in our travel plans to Ecuador, we found ourselves instead on a consolation trip along the central California coast, within striking distance of the bloom. Of course, we couldn't resist.
We were not disappointed!  More super bloom photos.
Aside from flower extravaganzas, we rediscovered Death Valley's ever-present wonders. Rocks. Craters. Dunes. Canyons. Mysteries. PK indulged my photo mania by getting up and out of camp around sunrise, and going out again in the late afternoon, to catch the best light. We hiked for hours, stopping often to soak in the colors and forms and wrap our minds around how natural beauty grabs the heart and makes the soul sing. After that lyrical (ha!) phrase, I will lay off the descriptions and get to the photos, sans flowers. Death Valley don't need no stinkin' flowers to blow your mind. (But don't miss them if you can possibly get there before the rare bloom ends.)
You don't need to hike to enjoy Death Valley, but many gorgeous areas are accessed by easy to moderate trails. We saw hikers of all shapes, sizes, and ages in canyons and washes. (We wondered how some of them were going to make it! Black clothing? Flip flops? No water?) We both use hiking poles, wear sturdy boots or hiking shoes, carry water and snacks, bring a map and binoculars, and I always have my camera. Above, someone else is using it to take our photo at Dante's View. 
Dropping into Death Valley from the west through the Panamint Mountains, and I mean "dropping." Highway 190 goes from Lone Pine, CA, elevation 3,727 ft, at the foot of Mt. Whitney, to Death Valley, parts of which are more than 200 feet below sea level. The 70-mile drive previews what awaits. Right away, you know it's gonna be good down there.  
Death Valley in the early morning from atop Dante's View 5,000 feet above the valley floor.
Sunset at the Mesquite Dunes. Photo was taken from the road as we attempted to reach another destination while the amazing light prevailed. Since "amazing light" lasts maybe 10 minutes, probably less, ours was a futile pursuit. But at least I got this photo, and the one below. People walking around out there give it scale, and the scale is HUGE, as Bernie Sanders would say.
More Mesquite Dunes.
A favorite image from 2015 when we discovered Ubehebe Crater and the Little Hebe Crater Trail.

I'm skipping captions for most of the photos below. Unless otherwise noted, they were made at Golden Canyon, Zabriskie Point, Twenty Mule Team Canyon, or from along the road in the Badwater Basin, where we hung out a lot because of all the flowers. All these are roughly in the same area. Death Valley has MUCH more to offer.  


PK trudging up a steep trail in the Red Cathedral region of the Golden Canyon trail

If you go .... a few tips.
  • Wear light-colored clothing to help stay cool.
  • Wear a hat, wide brims are good.
  • Carry a light pack to keep your hands free. Many trails require a bit of scrambling.
  • Hiking poles are helpful.
  • Camping? Only one campground takes reservations. To score a good spot elsewhere, arrive early in the day, preferably not on a weekend. We saw lots of tents pitched on rocky parking lots in overflow camping areas. 
  • Talk to other tourists for ideas about where to go, what to see, especially if you're there for the super bloom. 
  • Get up early. Midday is too hot and too bright for maximum enjoyment, especially for photography. 
  • Check maps carefully and also the park-provided information. Many loop trails are easier starting in one direction rather than the other.
  • Forget about your cell phone. It won't work in 99.9 percent of the park. 
  • If you plan to get off the beaten path, be careful. A park ranger told us back country travelers should plan on changing at least one flat tire because of sharp rocks. We made a couple-mile foray onto a dirt and rock road before we turned around, shaken and stirred by washboard surface.  Eight-ply tires are recommended.
If you've never been to Death Valley, and want to do it justice, plan on spending at least 3-5 days. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Chasing the Super Bloom - Death Valley 2016

During our recent swing through Death Valley, it occurred me to that the national park may be misnamed. Valley of Light? Drama Valley? Valley of Vibrant Earth and Sky? Even when it isn't busting out major primary colors, as it is now, Death Valley is life affirming. Its eerie stark beauty is like no other, and the sunrise and sunset-saturated colors of the rocks and mountains, dunes and salt flats, canyons and washes, will persist long after the fantastic but ephemeral super bloom fades. But right now, and perhaps for the next couple months, Death Valley is putting on a rare show. 
Hordes descended upon Death Valley the weekend we visited - February 26-28 - as breathless reports of a super bloom continued. I was concerned, that since the bloom had been in progress for a few weeks, it would be on the wane by the time we dropped in. And when we first entered the park, from the west, we searched in vain for spots of color. It wasn't until we reached the Badwater area at sea level and below,  that splashes of yellow appeared, and then well past the official Badwater tourist zone, that flowers were thick and lush, providing the spectacular effect I'd anticipated.  It was a joy to see.

Earlier areas looked more like this, attracting just as many flower lovers and photographers. I loved being among them, rushing forth to capture whatever caught my eye. It reminded me of the excitement bears and bison elicit in Yellowstone. I'd like to think I'm above succumbing to group think about random roadside rarities, but I'm not. I can leap out of cars with the best of the them, camera at the ready.
Last yellow-tinged photo leaving Death Valley en route to Beatty to the east. 

Sparse  vegetarian, but, in contrast to the usual barren rocks, a highly decorated Death Valley scene.
The notch-leaf phacelia sets off the yellow of desert gold.

Desert Five-spot, our prize sighting. Globe-shaped flowers and roundish leaves. We saw a half dozen, mostly stand alone.
Lesser Mojave. We saw few of these, and only in a 
a nameless wash on Mormon Point. (A wash that led to a
winding slot canyon marked with a cairn by hikers we met
in the parking lot. Otherwise, we would not have known.)

PK walking amidst hip-high Desert Gold, which were thick in the south end of the park.

Desert Ghost. 
Desert Gold blooms are the most numerous, but the understory is full of purple and white flowers.

We spotted this bloom at Dante's View high above the valley floor. The vast majority of color was at or below sea level As the season progresses, the bloom is expected to move up, so late-arriving wildflower aficionados will not be disappointed they didn't get in on the ground floor, so to speak.
Death Valley from Dante's View, 5,476 feet above sea level. Even without flowers, it is awe-inspiring.