A stormy day on the coast

Sunday was a good day for photography on the coast. Not a great day to be a marine mammal or even a bird, as the wind was blowing hard and sea was running high from wind driven swell combined with swell from an Alaskan storm. But what we had in wild abundance was cumulonimbus clouds, something we have seen precious little of this winter.

Here are a few shots from San Mateo County- Davenport and Pigeon Point.

Our sky is a boring solid blue most of the year, and when it is not solid blue it is often solid gray- a persistent ‘marine layer’ of fog envelopes the coast most mornings from April through October, and it is back to blue when it burns off. Only after a storm front moves through do we get the beautiful puffy white clouds that make landscape photography more interesting. Florida, which is an overgrown sandbar, has the most striking clouds I’ve seen anywhere, but suffers the absence of our stunning cliffs, flora and fauna.

Fortunately the storms also give us waves and white water to go with the clouds and we had all of them in buckets on Sunday. The swell was not as big as advertised, but it still made for good photography, provided you were patient enough to wait for the sun to poke through, as it did from time to time all day.

Sunday was very windy with gusts up to 30 knots, that kept the surfers away and grounded pelicans, even the gulls were not moving around much. You may notice gulls and pelicans moving north at the edges of our coastal bluffs on windy days- when the wind is from the north, which is counter intuitive. It becomes even more interesting when you notice that the birds are flying into the wind, a strong wind, but doing it without flapping their wings. They have learned to use the wind as it strikes the cliffs and is deflected up. The birds use the updraft to gain altitude, then glide down and forward, and they do it over and over to move against the wind with little effort.

On very windy days they get pushed around a lot, so it is very interesting to watch. You will see them just below and just above the top of the cliff, and very close the cliff’s edge, which is often the shoulder of Highway One.

If you wonder why you don’t see them in the same positions headed south, it’s because they don’t need the updrafts, going south the wind is helping, regardless of location. Going north they have to rely on tricks- flying in formation, riding the updraft, or hugging the water’s surface where friction slows the wind. They spread out when they are flying with the wind, and to the casual roadside observer they disappear. The northbound lane is narrow, right next to the highway and they are easy to see.

Anytime I am on the San Mateo coast I try to stop at Pigeon Point, it is both easy to access and very beautiful, in almost any light there is something to see and shoot. On clear evenings without fog it is captivating, the beacon, sadly a diminutive form of it’s previous splendor, is visible for a few miles as you approach the point, especially from the south. Although hobbled by it’s placement on the seaward side of the tower, it is still inspiring to see at night. Sunday was no exception.

I started my day there before sunrise, which thanks to the switch to daylight savings occurred at about 7:20 at the lighthouse. It is interesting to note that the reported time for sunrise is off by about five minutes here, because of the mountains to the east. On a handful of dawns I’ve watched the first rays of golden light jump onto the giant candlestick that is the lighthouse. But more commonly the wait is in vain, as the fog refuses to part and dramatic photography must wait for another day. No glorious sunrise today, the clouds kept the sun locked away. I snapped this image on my way back up the coast after noon.


About westcoastwilds

This site is meant to share the beauty of the Pacific Ocean and educate people about mankind's stewardship obligations now that we have complete control of the planet. To date we've made a mess of it, but there is still hope.
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