Monterey Orcas

As part of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators Conference at UC Santa Cruz a group of illustrators set out from Moss Landing Harbor on a Thursday morning for a three hour tour.

Monterey Bay is known for its pelagic birding and the many marine mammals that enter the bay throughout the year. The reason for this lies under the waters. Starting just off Moss Landing’s shores and stretching out to the west for 95 miles, lies the Monterey Canyon. This submarine canyon is larger than the Grand Canyon reaching depths of 11,800 feet and is the largest submarine canyon on the west coast. The deep waters provides a nutrient rich feeding ground for birds, fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals which includes the largest animal on planet earth, the blue whale.

I had first seen blues in the bay on a whale whatch trip out of Monterey when I was a junior in high school (to the disbelief of my biology teacher, but I had the pictures to prove it). It was not uncommon to see gray and humpback whales in Monterey Bay. But on this trip I was going to see a life marine mammal in the wild!

The first marine mammals we encountered in the harbor were sea otter, harbor seal and California sea lion. We turned to the portside at the foraging white pelicans and headed out of the break water to the open ocean and the Monterey Canyon.

It wasn’t long before I spotted our first marine mammal, a lone harbor porpoise (they always seem to be alone), crossing our western bearing, heading to the north of the bay.

After about 15 minutes our captain spotted a blow on the horizon and off we went to find the source. We caught up to the whale, a young humpback and were treated with nice views of its flukes as it dove down. We followed the whale and watched it resurface, take a breath and dive again. We then spotted another humpback and followed it.

Murmurings from the cabin let me know that something was afoot. The captain was on the radio with another whale watch boat and it seemed that they had just sited something special in the southern part of the bay.

As we throttled up heading on a southern bearing, scattering sooty shearwaters in the process, I knew it could be two things: a blue whale or an orca pod. I was hoping it was the latter! Our naturalist was keeping quiet about the sightings to the south.

My first experience with live orcas or killer whales, happened not too far from my childhood home. It was just north on Highwsy 101 on the western rim of San Francico Bay. The setting was the ambitiously titled Marine World Africa USA in Redwood Shores. This amusement park’s main draw, aside from the water skiing show, was the killer whale show where the world’s largest pied dolphin swam in circles and leapt up to snatch a herring from the trainer’s mouth. This is the way most children fell in love with killer whales in the last 1960’s and 70’s.

Since that time, attitudes have changed about keeping these magnificent marine mammals in captivity and training them to do tricks for eager audiences. Marine World left it’s original site on the west side of the bay in 1986 and moved to Vallejo later to be renamed Discovery Kingdom. The amusement park sent it’s last captive orca to San Diego in 2012, ending 40 years of orca captivity at the park.

I now wanted to see orcas in the wild, orcas swimming in a straight line, orcas not doing tricks for an audience. And hopefully we would be seeing a pod soon. We arrived at a location just off the coast of Monterey where there was five other watching boats in pursuit.


Part of the pod whale watch boats following the pod of orcas. Here a female breaks the surface.

There was a moment of anticipation as we scanned the waters, willing every wave or shadow to materialize into the black back of an orca. Soon we were rewarded with a pod of about seven orcas consisting of females and calves. Two came within ten yards of our boat to give us a look-see!

Recently more and more orcas have been sited in Monterey Bay. It was previously thought that they appeared during grey whale migration to prey on mothers with their calf as they headed north from their birthing lagoons in Baja California to head to their feeding grounds to the north. But now they can be seen throughout the year.


A sketch of a grey whale and calf from the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz.


Coloma, again

This summer I returned to Coloma and the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park sans 90 fourth graders. I had two historical buildings that I wanted to sketch: the Coloma schoolhouse and Wah Hop Store.

I headed to Coloma from my mother’s house in Penn Valley, early in the morning, to avoid the oppressive heat of the foothills in summer. Even though the spread makes it look like the school and Chinese store sit right next to each other, they are on opposite sides of the the town. I just used my artistic license (it hasn’t expired just yet).

The original school burned down and was replaced by the abandoned Slatington School which was nine miles away and moved to it’s present site. The school was reopened in January of 1920.


Painters painting the school as I am painting the Coloma school. The ranger came by to inspect our work.

After sketching the school and store, I headed up the hill to sketch one touchstone that I keep returning to, the James Marshall Monument.

Age of Gold

I filled in the page with the last two paragraphs of H. W. Brands seminal work The Age of Gold. This book, along with J. S. Holliday’s groundbreaking masterpiece, The World Rushed In, are the two greater books written about California’s Gold Rush. the last paragraph of Brands history is quoted here:

Yet he was remembered after his death, and a statue was erected in his honor. The statue stands above the river at Coloma, in a hillside copse of trees. From a stone pedestal Marshall gazes out across the valley. The mill is long gone, and the millrace obliterated. But so is most evidence of the hordes who followed Marshall here, and the general scene isn’t much different that it was on that sunny, cold morning in 1848, when the carpenter’s eye fell on the glittering yellow flakes that set the heart of the world aquiver.


4,000 Year Old Tree and the Invisible Vireo

This summer I returned to the Eastern Sierras, the Owens Valley, and the White Mountains. I had two objectives for my visit:

  1. To finally head out to the White Mountains to hike among the 4,000 year old trees at Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
  2. To search for the elusive plumbeous vireo and add it to my lifelist.

The bristlecone pines where the easier of the two objectives because they hadn’t gone anywhere since the time the Egyptian Pyramids where completed. The vireo was an altogether different story.

I lit out of Bishop  to the White Mountains early one morning, first heading south on 395 and then east at Lone Pine. The road to Bristlecone Pine is only open when the snow melts, which explains why I had never made it out on my Spring visits to the Eastern Sierras. About an hour later I arrived at 10,000 feet at the Schulman Grove Visitor Center.

The visitor center and grove are named after Dr. Edmund Schulman (1908-1958) who was an early pioneer of dendrochronology, which is the study of tree rings to determine past climatic conditions. Schulman was determined to find the oldest living trees by taking a core sample and counting the rings. In 1953, this search brought him to the White Mountains and the groves of Bristlecone Pine ( Pinus longaeva). He first took samples from one side of a drainage but then moved across the valley to the other side which consisted of more arid rocky dolomite soil of the eastern facing slope. Here in the grove that now bears his name he took a core sample of an old specimen. He returned to his camp and he started counting and counting and counting. He was amazed to count rings beyond the year 2046 BC! He had discovered the first tree that was over 4,000 years old.

A few years later and a few miles away from the Schulman Grove he discovered the Methuselah Tree, which is believed to 4,600 years old, the oldest living thing on planet Earth. The Methuselah Tree’s exact location is kept a secret to prevent vandalism.

Schulman’s work  and the work of other dendrochronogists have pieced together a continuous bristlecone tree chronology both of living and dead wood. This has provided information about climatic patterns over the last 11,500 years and has helped modern historian date ancient objects, such as Stonehenge, more accurately. Bristlecone pines have been called “the trees that re-wrote history”.

My second objective was to find a small gray bird at the very western edge of it’s range. I had tried to find this bird on many trips to the Eastern Sierras without success. But this time, with the help of ebird, I was able to find two locations around Mammoth Lakes where the vireo had recently been seen. The two  location were the Earthquake Fault Trail and the Inyo Craters.

On one afternoon I headed up to the Inyo Craters. The skies clouded over and ominous dark gray clouds rolled in from the northwest. A typical late afternoon Sierra thunder storm. The thunder and lighting was close and I aborted my search as I heard a vireo-like warble coming from the ridge. On my hike back to my car I was pelted with chick-pea sized hail. I was left with a memorable memory but without the plumbeous.

My second location was the Earthquake Trail. Instead of searching I decided to find a quiet sit spot snd just let the birds come to me.  I chose a stump that faced down hill into the pine forest. While I did not find what I had come to find, as often happens, I found something unsuspected: an active woodpecker nest cavity in a snag just down hill from my stump. It was the uncommon Williamson’s sapsucker, the woodpecker that Pete Dunne calls “The Beautiful Sapsucker”. So of course I did a spear about the finding.



Williamson’s sapsucker nest cavity at the Earthquake trail.

I never did find plumbeous vireo. This bird has become a juju bird for me. I guess it just gives me a reason to return to the Eastern Sierra to continue the search.

On Top Devils

Another visit and sketch of Devils Postpile but this time on top of the pile.


The Valley Part 4

There was yet another birth in 1971 in the Santa Clara Valley that played into the history of personal computing. This was a new performance arts center on the campus of De Anza Community College in Cupertino. It was dedicated in the year of my birth and it was christened: Flint Center for the Performing Arts.

In my personal history, this 2,600 seat auditorium had been the location of a few field trips and an occasional performance of The Nutcracker around the holidays. The set up of the auditorium is with seating front and center with two side aisles, but without  a center aisle. Perhaps not the best design for a patron with a weak bladder!

After High School I attended De Anza and I even took a film class in the back of Flint Center.

What writes Flint Center into the digital annals of Silicon Valley history was what occurred here on January 24, 1984. In this ominous Orwellian year, a company that started in a garage in Los Altos, was going to take on the Davids of the computing world with the introduction of their new computer. The company would be Apple Computers and it’s new product, which was launched here at Flint Center, was named the Macintosh.

Flint Center was chosen as the sight of the annual stockholders meeting and the Mac team walked the short distance to the auditorium from their building near De Anza Boulevard.

The auditorium was packed in anticipation for Apple’s new computer. The fervor was stoked by the Riley Scott directed ad that was shown during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII. The now famous “1984” ad depicts a dystopian world where mindless drones march in lock step and a hammer wielding woman runs toward the screen thats projecting “Big Brother”. She throws the hammer at the screen and the drones stare on in opened mouthed awe as the screen explodes. The ad ends with he words, “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984””

Steve Jobs, as chairman, opened the meeting by quoting the second verse to the Dylan song, “The Times They Are a-Changin'”. He then unveiled the machine that he knew would change the world.

In the late 1980’s our family owned a Macintosh SE. I liked the design on the computer and the warm and friendly fonts and designs. But soon after that, Apple computers moved outside of my price range.

Flint Center was used for two other Apple events and the performing arts center has been used as a filming location for two of the three films made about Jobs since his death in 2011.


Here is the “birth certificate’ of Calvin Flint Center of the Performing Arts.