California culture shock

When I left the prairies to look for wildlife in northern California, the first thing I found was … culture shock. I am used to creatures built for speed, camouflage and generally avoiding me, but dealing with sea creatures left me scrambling to figure the whole thing out.


Where’s the rest of this humpback whale?

Here are five things I learned along the way:

1. There are a lot of places to hide.

It’s not exactly news that the ocean is big but it sure is impressive to someone from the prairies. Whales can hide their massive bodies everywhere and suddenly appear wherever I’m not looking. I thot I was fast with a camera but this required a whole lot more focus and speed. Advantage whales.

2. Butt shots are good.

The ocean turns this whole concept of butt shots on its head. A butt shot on the prairies means I missed the shot. However, on the ocean, a whale’s butt … err tail … is often all you get to see so capturing it is a good thing I think. I’m still a bit confused on this one.

3. Sea lions don’t hang out on rocks.

I had this grand idea of capturing sea lions lounging on the rocks. Now they might do that in places I didn’t look but I only found them on docks and wharfs. It was not the idyllic photo I had in mind. In hindsight, I missed my opportunity waiting for an opportunity that never came. I guess sea lions like hanging around boats and people.

4. Everyone has whiskers.

I knew that sea lions and seals don’t look anything alike … until one of them pops its head out of the water for a quick look and disappears. Apparently a lot of sea creatures are endowed with whiskers so it’s a little more confusing than I first thot. I learned that sea lions have an ear cover that seals don’t and they certainly are noisier! And nobody shaves.


Is this a death scene? No wait they’re just sleeping.

5. Elephant seals look dead.

A hot sandy hike brought me over the crest of a hill to catch my first glimpse of elephant seals … and they were all dead. At least they looked dead as they slept motionless on the beach. It was a bit eerie until I finally noted some movement. Thankfully a loud disagreement saved me from only a morgue shot.

My conclusion was that a little culture shock and a little learning was good. The next time I resurface on a California ocean, I will be a little wiser. Stay tuned for more non-prairie creatures!


Just a friendly disagreement between two juvenile male elephant seals. Ya I’ve got teeth!

Latest Comments

  1. MJF Images says:

    Hope you managed to avoid the fires. Northern California can be very beautiful on land too, in the spring is my favorite. Nice catch on the elephant seals!


  2. Steve Schwartzman says:

    “Everyone has whiskers.” That includes at least a couple of nature photographers named Steve.


  3. Mandy says:

    Looking forward to more shots outside your comfort zone 🙂


  4. Pam says:

    Enjoyed the pics! Happy to give a couple of tips since we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for quite some time. Seals do hang out on rocks in the Monterey area (check out Point Lobos State Park). That is also a good place to see sea otters. If you visit, I can tell you a place to see at least 30 sea otters in a raft at one time. Also, sometime try to visit the Cambria area elephant seal rookery in January, February, or March. You will be blown away by the activity then! Mating, new babies, and fighting. When the elephant seals lay there looking dead, they are conserving energy since they don’t eat while they molt. I think I’d just lay there too after swimming and fishing nonstop for months! 🙂


    • Lyle Krahn says:

      Thanks for the tips. I will be back there so those are places I definitely want to check out. It’s always good to get info from the locals. Blown away by the activity sounds too good to pass up!

      I find the cycles that animals go through quite interesting. Thankfully I don’t have to go without food for any extended time.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dalo 2013 says:

    Very good take on the “culture shock” of wildlife photography ~ California just has to be different. However, gotta say that you did get a nice butt shot in your opening photo. The elephant seal death scene is actually quite good too in a macabre sort of way.


    • Lyle Krahn says:

      It was a lot of fun to be somewhere else and get in the photo zone with different kinds of creatures. I’m looking forward to doing it again. I appreciate your comments. Macabre is a great word for that scene.


  6. Phil Lanoue says:

    Culture shock indeed, but sure looks like a great time!


  7. Garden Walk Garden Talk says:

    Very cute post, especially the “dead-looking” elephant seals. I always wondered what they do all day.


  8. Mike Powell says:

    Love these shots, Lyle, and it sounds like you are like a fish out of water as you adjust to a completely different kind of environment and a whole different set of creatures. I really like your fluke shots. Why is it that we use the same expression for “lucky” and for a “whale’s tail?”


  9. Jeff | Planet Bell says:

    It is good to see you got some inspiration again. I’ve leaned a lot of the same lessons this summer living by the sea, after a life inland. I look forward to more.


  10. Mary says:

    Great series of shots!


  11. Lavinia Ross says:

    Beautiful shots! I love the color of the water as well in the whale photos. Reminds me of studying mythology way back when. The Goddess Athena was referred to as “the sea-grey eyed Athena”. Easy to see where that came descriptor came from! Glad to hear you got down into northern California. Hope you were able to visit Mount Shasta as well, and have lunch at The Black Bear Diner.


    • Lyle Krahn says:

      I’ll have to put those two on the list for next time. We were amazed at how many things we could see and do so the list had to be substantially shortened for this trip. But now that my daughter lives there, I like the odds of visiting again!


  12. Steve Gingold says:

    Yeah, even wildlife we are familiar with can throw us a curve so no surprise that the unfamiliar was less than cooperative. I am wagering you’ll be on top of this before long.


    • Lyle Krahn says:

      It does take a while to figure out new areas and new creatures. We weren’t there long enough to really get on top of it but I had a lot of fun learning. Next time we visit will be even better.


  13. krikitarts says:

    Butt shots are good–that’s the best laugh I’ve had today! I’ve not had the chance to explore California very much, but we made a road trip last November from Omaha to northern CA and then down to Monterey, and we took a small boat excursion into the Elkhorn Slough, on the outskirts of Castroville (an hour or so north of Monterey) that we’ll never forget. There were many sea lions on the rocks, but even more exciting for me were the sea otters in the slough, and our slow passage did not seem to bother them in the least, in fact many wonderful portrait shots of both adults and pups resulted. I still get the shivering grins when I think back to it. If you’re ever in the area, be sure to take a couple of hours to take in this little wonder.


    • Lyle Krahn says:

      As fate would have it, we spent some hours at Elkhorn Slough (though not on a boat excursion) and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the sea otters there as well as some seals. There were a lot of rocks but no sea lions on them. Shivering grins is a great expression – I will have to remember that. We were quite excited to see the sea otters in the wild particularly after visiting the aquarium in Monterey and learning about them. Wild seems so much better.

      I’m happy to hear about your laugh. I loved the irony of the butt shots.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Gunta says:

    Ah… you were closer to my territory. Catching whale shots is pretty much a matter of luck, or perhaps location. The do have a lot of room to hide out (as you mentioned), but there is that migratory pattern that happens as they travel from So. Cal. to Alaska and back. We have a variety of harbor seals and sea lions that hang out on rocks around here. On the other hand they are opportunistic and will hang out wherever they think they might catch a free or easy meal. My partner has caught Chinook Salmon in the Rogue River estuary (at Gold Beach, Oregon) and has had to compete with the seals for his catch. They even have a patrol boat to scare the thieving seals away from the fishermen’s catches. There’s also been a whale (a Grey, I believe) hanging out near that same estuary. All in all, you should be proud of the shots you did catch given the limited amount of opportunity you likely had. Trust me, it ain’t easy!


    • Lyle Krahn says:

      I was chuckling to myself about my interest in sea lions and seals since I knew they would be extremely commonplace for locals but quite a novelty for me. I guess I’m not surprised they tend to hang out where the food is since that’s pretty common for wild creatures. Though it sounds like your seals are quite brassy in their thieving ways!

      I did have a limited opportunity to get whale shots (two-hour boat ride) and I would have been happy with the shots I got if that was all there was. As luck would have it, I got much better opportunities that I’m saving for a future post. I certainly get the luck part of whale photography.


  15. David says:

    I really like the partial tail shot. The full tail shot is classic and ideal for identification but I think the partial tail is different and a little more interesting. I agree, elephant seals on land do look dead. Many years ago I vacationed in Hawaii and I remember that there was a particular section of beach on one of the islands we visited that was favored by elephant seals. And sure enough we saw a huge elephant seal laying there. There was yellow caution tape keeping people away and several signs saying in effect, don’t try to touch the seal, it is not dead, and don’t try to push it into the ocean (as if any one or 10 people could) as he is not stranded.


    • Lyle Krahn says:

      It’s interesting how the shot that’s a little different is generally more appealing. I thoroughly enjoyed your story from Hawaii. I can just see that scene playing out and someone thinking they could push it into the ocean. Funny!

      Liked by 1 person

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