Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Winter Escape in San Diego, Part 1: Mammals of Land and Sea

While the weather here in Connecticut got increasingly cold and wintry this past weekend (with six inches of new snow!), Paul and I took a trip across the country, all the way to San Diego. Neither of us had been there before, and I hadn't been to California for years, so it was quite the change of environment for us. We were technically there for a wedding, but we made sure to work in plenty of extra time to wander around and explore... and to look for animals, of course!

Our first scheduled activity, in fact, was an off-shore whale watch. What better way to start exploring a new place than to look for the giant creatures that live in its oceans? (Well, perhaps an activity that doesn't cause seasickness, which, it has now been confirmed, is definitely a problem for me! But, oh well.) And we did see whales. At least four big Gray Whales crossed our path on their southward migration. Mostly, we saw the mist shooting up from the whales' blowholes as they skimmed the surface to breathe:

And every few minutes, we'd get a glimpse of a fluke as the whales made a dive:

One of the whales even came close enough to show off its barnacle-covered back as it skimmed the water's surface:

I still can't really believe that such huge creatures exist under the water, and it was hard to get a real sense of their size from the little glimpses that they gave us. But really, it was just extraordinarily cool to be in their presence.

Seasickness notwithstanding, it was a great little trip. We didn't get to see any dolphins, which are apparently very common in these waters, but we were greeted by a sunning California Sea Lion on our way back into the harbor:

(Sadly, it looks like this Sea Lion has some fishing line stuck around its neck. I hope the poor fellow will be OK...)

During the rest of our stay, we spent a lot of time wandering along the coastline near our hotel in La Jolla, which is a community in the northern part of San Diego. The shore here was just gorgeous, alternating between dramatic cliffs and sandy beaches, and with animals everywhere. There were tons of birds (look for more on those in a future post), but the creature that really got the two of us excited was another mammal. The small protected beach in this next picture is called Children's Pool, and it just happens to be a daily haven for a large group of Harbor Seals:

Harbor Seals are kind of amazing, in that they somehow manage to walk the line between ridiculously funny-looking and mind-meltingly adorable. I think they look more sleek than ungainly when they first emerge from the water:

And they get super fluffy when they've dried off in the sun, showing off beautiful speckled fur:

But even with all that fur and those fantastically cute faces, I can't help seeing the seals as big awkward blobs rolling around on the sand, especially when they move! I took a couple videos of beach action, so you can see what I mean:

I keep thinking they don't look like seals so much as caterpillars, or slugs, when they move. And yet, there's some sort of grace to their movements, even on land:

Even from behind the ropes that were put up to keep people and seals separate, we felt like we were really hanging out with the seals, and it was awesome. And blubber or no, the life of a seal sure looks good from this angle!

These Harbor Seals were definitely used to people hanging around, which meant that we could walk around just a few yards from them without disturbing them. There was another mammal inhabiting the cliffs of La Jolla that showed a similar lack of concern for people as well, not unlike some of its eastern urban relatives that I've encountered. Squirrel!

These California Ground Squirrels were all over the place, content to keep foraging as we stared and pointed at them, or, sometimes, to stare right back:

I don't know what this succulent ground cover is, but it must be delicious to a squirrel:

[Edit: The plant is probably either Ice Plant or Sea Fig, both of which are introduced and invasive in California. Thanks for the info, Chris!]


We saw many other creatures on our trip, and I've got more cool things to share, so watch for another post (or maybe two?) in the near future!


  1. The groundcover is ice plant -- it's inescapable in California near harbors and in other coastal areas.

  2. (I guess it could also be this one -- it looks more like the first one, but we did always call it ice plant, not sea fig.)

  3. Thanks, Chris! It definitely was everywhere, and I didn't know what to call it because I'd never seen it before.

  4. In the second whale photo, you can see a vessel of some kind in the distance. This was a rowboat with at least three people in it, and they were expressly flouting the local law, which says you need to stay behind the whales a certain distance, not pass in front of them. The gray whales don't like that. The two tour boats were back a ways, but these guys got up too close.

  5. Yeah, the little boat was not playing nice. It made me happy, actually, to hear how angry the leaders on our boat were getting about that little boat -- well, not happy, but heartened that some people cared about respecting the whales, and that those people were in charge of our trip.

  6. Lizo, I thought we saw more like eight whales - four pairs. I could be wrong, but I thought they were always in pairs on this trip.

  7. Hmm, you could be right, Dan! I thought I remembered that we saw two in the first group, and then one later on, but I definitely could've missed something while I was sitting huddled in the corner of the boat. :P I actually just checked the whale watching company's website, and their daily blog lists 4 whales for that day -- so if that's right, we were both close!

  8. Cute seals! The picture when it's dry reminds me of Karma. Rohb says all light-colored animals remind me of Karma.

  9. Heather: The seals are indeed adorable. Definitely go see them if you're in the area -- I think there might even be baby seals by now!