Living Edens: Big Sur Photo Essay: Land of Contrasts
Lords of the Big Sur beaches, male elephant seals stage epic and sometimes bloody battles -- all to control a harem of smaller females. And when it comes to swimming, these seagoing mammals are no slouches: they routinely dive 300 feet or deeper in search of food, staying under for up to 30 minutes.
Big Sur's complex geology has created a convoluted landscape full of dips, curves, slopes, and canyons. As a result, very different ecosystems can occur side by side, each adapted to its own niche.
Big Sur's weather is one secret to its beauty and ecological wealth. Its Mediterranean climate supports a trove of plants. And regular fog invasions, like this one, help bring moisture to the region's rich forests, from towering redwoods to massive oaks.
Massive oaks and other broad-leaved trees star in many Big Sur snapshots. But the burly trees are facing a new enemy: a fungus that kills them silently and quickly. Researchers are pushing hard to find a way to stop the killer.
A land of contrasts, part of Big Sur's scenic and biological appeal comes from being an ecosystem literally on the edge. Here, water meets land, creating habitat that holds everything from spray- and fog-loving plants, to sea creatures that don't mind powerful waves.
Redwoods aren't the only plant creating towering Big Sur forests. Offshore, forests of kelp, a kind of seaweed, can rise 100 feet off the bottom, giving shelter to vast schools of fish, shellfish, and hungry otters.
Once the king of Big Sur's skies, the California condor nearly went extinct several decades ago. Today, however, the birds are making a comeback -- thanks to biologists and zoos that have learned to rear the massive carrion eaters and release them into the wild. Next step: getting the restored birds to raise their own wild-borne chicks.
People once valued the sea otter for its thick, luxurious coat -- and nearly hunted them to extinction. Today, it is a protected species, and populations have soared off Big Sur's coast.
Hopping from streamside boulder to boulder, and sometimes under the water itself, the dipper is one of Big Sur's many amazing creatures. The dipper's distinctive bobbing behavior gives the bird its name.
Growing up to 300 feet tall, the towering coastal redwood is a signature Big Sur species. Loggers took many of the biggest trees, but conservationists have helped save some groves.
Snug as eggs in a carton, these acorns were carefully stored in their neatly drilled holes by a woodpecker. Several species of Big Sur woodpeckers collect and store their harvests, even defending their caches from other bids. Amazingly, the birds can remember the locations of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of acorns.
Deep offshore canyons and powerful upwelling currents make the waters off Big Sur rich in sea life. The currents carry nutrients that spark plankton blooms, drawing fish, which in turn attract even bigger predators, from seabirds to sea lions.