Bay Nature magazineWinter 2023


Monterey Bay in Winter: Photos by Frans Lanting

January 3, 2023

In the Bay of Life: From Wind to Whales, a new book about the Monterey Bay region, renowned photographer Frans Lanting and writer Christine Eckstrom explore the ecoregion, from the inland areas out to the ocean. The following is an excerpt from the new publication.

Most people who visit Monterey Bay, and those lucky to live here, don’t think very often about the climate—but everyone likes the weather. While millions of people elsewhere in the United States swelter through the heat of summer, most of the Monterey Bay remains cool. And when much of the country struggles through the cold of winter, the Monterey Bay stays mild. There is a different pulse to the seasons here than in any other part of the United States.

Life in the Monterey Bay is shaped by a temperate Mediterranean climate of rainy winters and dry summers that is found in only five regions in the world: parts of California, Chile, South Africa, Australia, and Europe’s Mediterranean Basin. Combined, they cover only 2 percent of the Earth’s landmass, yet they nurture 20 percent of all the plant species in the world. While these five places are distinctly different from one another, they are all located along the western edge of continents where cold, offshore ocean currents moderate summer temperatures.

Monterey Bay has a remarkable array of microclimates, from a fog belt in the north around Pigeon Point to a banana belt inside the bay around Santa Cruz and another fog belt around Monterey. The topography of rugged hills and steep valleys contributes to this diversity. Two mountain ranges running parallel to the coast create rain shadows that keep interior valleys dry. Annual rainfall in the Santa Lucia Range of Big Sur can be 60 inches, while the Salinas Valley to the east receives less than 15 inches. Gaps in the coastal ranges allow fog to penetrate the Salinas and Pajaro Valleys, moderating heat in these agricultural regions. Farmers here depend on fog.

Breaking wave, Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, California. (Photo by Frans Lanting)

In this complex setting the bay’s seasons unfold, each marked by a change in the air. The powerful winds of spring whip whitecaps across the surface of the bay before the moist waves of fog roll inland during summer. The clear skies of autumn can gust with hot winds that feel like the breath of fire. They give way to the puffed cumulus clouds of winter that cast flickering shadows across land and sea in the wake of storms.  

Monterey Bay’s seasons are shaped by a dome of high pressure that spreads across the northeastern Pacific Ocean for many thousands of square miles. Known as the North Pacific High, it consists of a vast, clockwise circulation of winds that shifts north and south during the year. As it does, it influences the bay’s weather. Winter is a season of renewal. Rain soaks down into thirsty soil and transforms grasses from gray to green. Streams come back to life, with rivulets gurgling in unexpected places. The forest floor turns soft and glistens with mushrooms. An earthy scent of damp soil and new growth rises up to tickle the senses. 

At the coast, the beaches at Año Nuevo are packed with elephant seals that converge here every winter to reproduce. From a distance the crowded colony looks like a mass of giant boulders piled together along the shore. Up close, it is a cacophony of sounds. Females bark to defend personal space, pups squeal to maintain contact with their mothers, and massive males trumpet deep, guttural warnings to ward off rivals. To human ears and eyes it may seem like utter chaos, but research has shown that males know the status of other males by their distinctive vocalizations. Long-term studies by researchers from UC Santa Cruz reveal the intricacy of relationships between individual elephant seals and their connections with the seasons at this place near the northern end of Monterey Bay.

Northern elephant seal young males sparring, Ano Nuevo Island Reserve, Monterey Bay, California, USA. (Photo by Frans Lanting)

By February when other parts of the United States are still blanketed with snow, signs of spring already appear around the bay: Frogs call in pulsing choruses from pools and ponds, golden poppies bloom in meadows, and offshore, kelp forests grow taller under the influence of a strengthening sun. 

At Big Basin Redwoods State Park, an intense fire fanned by high winds torched steep slopes covered with dense chaparral and knobcone pines that had not burned in more than a century. (Photo by Frans Lanting)
Pajaro river delivers sediments and wildfire debris to Pacific Ocean, Monterey Bay, California, USA. (Photo by Frans Lanting)
Rain on coastal meadow, Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz, California, USA. (Photo by Frans Lanting)
Fremont’s star lilies spreading across barren ground after wildfire, K&S Ranch, Monterey Bay, California, USA. (Photo by Frans Lanting)

Mediterranean climates are fickle by nature. Dry years alternate with wet ones, and periodic droughts are a fact of life. Climate change is making some local weather patterns more extreme. Warming temperatures create a “thirstier” atmosphere that increases evaporation, leaving less water for people and habitats alike—in a region already stressed by population growth and greater demands for water. It is sobering to contemplate how much Monterey Bay’s precious water systems depend on a handful of serendipitous winter storms each year. Yet they support the lives and livelihoods of a million people, a multi-billion-dollar agriculture sector, and an equally valuable tourism economy.

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