Should I start with the whales, the bat rays or the leopard shark?
I think I'll save the whales for last.
Week Two of my journey with photographer Allen Schaben, all the way down the California coast, began Monday morning in Point Reyes National Seashore. I wanted to update a story—an epic tale of private versus public interests that made national news several years ago.
For decades, Drakes Estero was home to an oyster farm that produced delicacies craved by slurping aficionados and gourmet chefs. The last owners of the company wanted to extend their lease, and they had plenty of support.
Customers, U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, and quite a few locals were among those arguing that the oyster farm was a perfectly appropriate enterprise, and some of them disputed foes' claims of habitat damage.
But oceanographer Sylvia Earle called Drakes Estero "a crown jewel" of great ecological significance, arguing that its eel grass meadows were a critical nursery for fish, harbor seals and migrating shore birds. Others thought it was just plain wrong to have a private industrial operation in the middle of a public wilderness area.
The opponents prevailed in 2012 when the Secretary of the U.S. Interior decided to shut down the operation. The production shacks have since been knocked down and carted away. Point Reyes National Seashore Supt. Cicely Muldoon told me the restoration of the estuary, which involves the removal of tons of underwater racks used to cultivate oysters, will begin in a matter of days.
I kayaked the estero on Monday with Muldoon and Amy Trainer, who was vilified by some locals when she fought to shut down the oyster farm as director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.
Trainer, now with the California Coastal Protection Network, pulled a four-foot long string of plastic tubing out of the mud as we boarded our kayaks. It was used in the cultivation process and at one time there were thousands of the tubes out there, she said.
We kayaked into a breeze that rippled Schooner Bay. Not too far in front of us, a river otter surfaced and curled back down. I noticed movement out of my right eye, looked down, and a three-foot leopard shark moseyed by.
We saw white pelicans and an egret rookery, and when we reached a draw on the bay, the surface of the water rippled.
"You're looking at a bat ray," said Trainer.
Soon they were all around us, three feet wide, slapping at the surface and gliding through eel grass.
There's no science yet on whether the end of oyster farming has restored sea grass and aided the animals that live here. But I felt grateful for the chance to float peacefully, as a visitor to a national treasure rather than an occupier. Not long ago, motorboats plied the estero and pneumatic drills could be heard, and the hum of commerce must have been harsh, like unexpected racket that disrupts a perfect dream.
On our way back to shore, fog hovered low over the bay and seemed to be a spiritual as much as a natural phenomenon.
Two things struck me:
That the California coast offers so many different landscapes, from pounding surf to plunging cliffs, from funky beach towns to quiet retreats like Drakes Estero.
And that the fight to save this treasure is a noble, never-ending endeavor.
After the kayak tour we paid a visit to Sherry and Tom Baty of Inverness, who fought on the side of wilderness during the oyster farm showdown that left local folks divided, even to this day.
Baty is retired and goes fishing every day if the weather is good. If it's not, he walks miles of beaches early in the morning, picking up trash.
That hobby came in handy during the oyster farm battle.
"My [contribution] was walking the beaches and finding oyster debris — the black plastic spacer tubes," Baty said, referring to the very thing Trainer had pulled out of the mud a few hours earlier. "I've seen them out there my entire life."
Baty did his research not on the estero, but on the outer Marin beaches. On his first outing, he said, he found more than 700 of the tubes and plotted their location with GPS. On another outing he found more than 500, taking notes and presenting his findings to the Coastal Commission.
"I was trying to demonstrate that the problem was not just in the estero," Baty said. "The tides and winds move stuff. There are probably plastic tubes on every beach in the Pacific Ocean now."
If you find that unlikely, let me point out that over the decades, Baty has collected washed up trash that floated across the sea from distant lands.
"It's domestic and international. I've found things with every language under the sun printed on it. From Indonesia, Japan, Korea."
Baty has collected hundreds of glass balls used by Japanese net fishermen. They're displayed in his living room, in stacks on the floor and on a table.
Most of what he finds, though, is not appropriate for a living room display. Plastics, containers, boating equipment.
"I've seen beaches covered with hypodermic needles and used condoms — talk about disgusting. And every tennis ball ever lost by someone walking a dog on the beach."
On my way out of Point Reyes I cruised through Stinson Beach, which has a bigger problem than trash. Homes in a private development are threatened by rising surf, and rock has been dumped to protect them.
Not that you can hold back the ocean, but that doesn't keep us from trying to live as close as we can to the water, drawn like moths to a flame.
Running out of time to write this column, I drove south through San Francisco and on to Pacifica, where I passed an abandoned apartment complex at risk of toppling into the sea.
What happened next I figure I owe to everyone who has fought to preserve access to our state's beaches and our ability to view the coast without booking a room in a luxury hotel.
That includes California's coastal commissioners, who have over the decades, more often than not, made farsighted decisions despite high-pressure cajoling by developers who see only dollars on the shore.
Looking for a place to park, I noticed movement in the water, no more than 100 yards off the beach.
That's an extremely large dolphin, I thought.
I pulled over and saw others looking in the same direction.
It wasn't a dolphin.
It was a humpback whale, and then another, and another, breaking the surface of the sea and migrating north along this fragile, endlessly amazing coast, a gift as old as time.