Springtime certainly has its charms–the hills turn green, wildflowers emerge, the days get longer. And summer is the traditional time to get outside. But fall is the season I look forward to most. True, the days are shorter, and the rain begins (we hope!); but at the same time, the fog retreats, wintering and migrating ducks and shorebirds return in droves, and the flat, hazy light of summer cools down and resolves into the clear, sharply etched, azure sky of autumn. And, inexplicably, the crowds thin out as well.
This is the time of year, then, when I particularly love to visit Drakes Beach at Point Reyes. My objective here is always the same: Head south along the beach, below the towering cliffs, to the place where the bluffs end and the beach tapers out into the wild and dynamic meeting place of the estero’s tides and the ocean waves. Ahead, across the channel, the dramatic arc of Limantour Beach and the Palomarin cliffs stretches off toward the southern horizon. Here, at the far end of the beach, beyond the parking-lot crowds and assailed only by the wind, I allow myself the momentary fantasy of being alone at the edge of the world.
But I am not alone. On a sandbar in the middle of the channel, a hundred or so harbor seals lie hauled out in the sun, while others swim by, popping their heads up above the surface of the water. Closer by, along the water’s edge, willets, dunlin, and curlew probe the mud. Up on the beach, several dozen white pelicans are massed together, resting.
There’s always so much to see here, especially in autumn. As naturalist David Wimpfheimer explains in his story about the estero, it’s this meeting of estuary and ocean that nurtures the diversity of wildlife here. That’s one reason I’ve been following the current debate about reopening our nation’s coastal waters to oil drilling. Politicians from both sides of the aisle are now reconsidering the 27-year-old federal ban on offshore drilling, in response to the cry from an oil-dependent citizenry to do something–anything–about the soaring price of gasoline.
While the ocean off Point Reyes and much of the Bay Area is protected from drilling by its status as a marine sanctuary (implemented in response to the infamous Santa Barbara oil spill, whose 40th anniversary will be on January 29), lines on a map can’t stop spilled oil from moving up or down the coast. An oil spill anywhere along the coast would likely harm populations of harbor seals–such as those at Drakes Estero–that rely on the resources of the nearshore marine environment to survive and raise their young. The onset of global warming, which is already causing measurable yet poorly understood changes in our ocean ecosystem, only makes it more urgent that we minimize the potential for other stresses.
Although we won’t get to vote directly on offshore drilling in this year’s election, there are plenty of races, from the local to the national, in which we can vote to begin the process of declaring our independence from fossil fuels. So please visit Drakes Estero and watch the harbor seals. Then come back and be their voice in the voting booth.