When a blue whale dives into the water, its head is already deeper than most scuba divers dare to go before its tail leaves the surface of the water. Close your eyes and try to process this fact for a minute. Amazing, isn’t it?
Masood and I found ourselves in Point Lobos State National Reserve without having had prior knowledge this place existed. Poor planning and lack of research on my part, for sure, but then we were pressed for time and couldn’t afford to visit every park and reserve that came our way between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“Whatever you do, do not miss driving on the Pacific Coast Highway when you visit California,” says everyone who has driven on this twisting, cliff-hugging, 200-kilometer route along central California.
Also known as Highway 1, this route is considered one of the most scenic drives in the world. Prior to our trip, Masood called someone he knew had been to the US several times to ask about his opinion about this drive. “Yeah, I’ve done it but it’s been so long ago and I don’t remember much.” I promptly told my beloved that I do not believe this guy. Nobody forgets about their Highway 1 drive.
We stayed overnight at Carmel-by-the-Sea, a lovely city roughy 200 kms south of San Francisco. The town has a total population of only 3,700. Carmel is known for its natural scenery and rich artistic history. Apparently, a lot of writers and poets from the early 1900s came here to derive inspiration from the beautiful landscape.
Our plan was to simply stay overnight in Carmel to rest and then resume our road trip early the next day. However, due to my consistent demand to always start early in the morning coupled by the fact that the Apple Store in Cupertino was closed when we visited (we had, otherwise, allocated a good three hours for shopping), we arrived in Carmel way ahead of schedule. This turned out to be quite fortunate, of course. The nice gentleman running the motel we stayed at suggested we visit Point Lobos State National Reserve.
Australian landscape artist Francis McComas discovered this scenic town and called it “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.”
I believe this artist and, if only we had the luxury of time, would definitely have loved to stay at least two days in Carmel to explore and learn about the diverse flora and fauna of this place.
And although we visited late last year, it was hot. There’s a great hiking trail within the park but we drove around since I don’t particularly fancy perspiring in my hijab. Plus hiking takes time, which we did not have. But mainly, as much as I hate admitting it, I just did not want to intentionally get tired before reaching my destination.
See those steps? I did not climb those so I have no idea where they lead to but they surely do make a good subject for a photograph.
But in my defense, I did end up walking – from the car park to the museum about 1 km away. Since we did not do any research, I had no idea there was a museum here. While walking on a tree-lined path, we came across a cute little cabin that reminded me of fairy tales, like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel.
Except there wouldn’t be a nicely paved, concrete road like this in the fairy tales.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Whalers Cabin Museum. The cabin overlooks Whalers Cove and Carmel Bay just as it has for over 160 years.
Once upon a time, a small group of Chinese fishermen and their families moved to Carmel and built their residences, one of which is this museum. The year was 1850, making this cabin one of the oldest wood-frame buildings of Chinese origin remaining in Monterey County.
More than the existence of this ancient house, I am astounded by the fact that the Chinese traveled all the way here by sea, in the 1850s. I tried Google Maps to see how many days it would take me to travel by sea but it only gave me the option to travel by air, as if dismissing the idea of a journey by ship preposterous.
Point Lobos State Reserve reflects a resplendent, natural harmony between land, sea, and sky. There is an area within the reserve known as the Whalers Cove. It consists of a sandy bottom with dispersed rocky outcroppings. Thick beds of giant kelp cling to these rocks. And where you find thick beds of kelp, you find sea otters napping.
The Whalers Cove is about 30-foot deep and is great for snorkeling and beginning divers. Please bear in mind, however, that only 15 scuba-diving buddy groups are allowed into the park each day, ensuring the reefs remain pristine and the marine life unmolested.
A flock of Western Gulls have made this part of the Whalers Cove their bathroom.
Anyway, going back to our story, the Chinese lived peacefully and quietly for four years. This was rudely interrupted by the operation of a granite quarry at the mouth of the cove. Few years later coal mining begun in nearby areas and since the only economic way to get the coal out of the area is by the sea, a coal chute was constructed in Whalers Cove.
As if these activities weren’t enough to destroy the natural beauty of Carmel, the Portuguese soon joined the party. But they weren’t interested in coal or granite. Instead, it was the annual gray whale migration that attracted them. They set up residence in Whalers Cove, and about 15-20 men were part of a crew that hunted Gray whales that migrate along the California coast between mid-December and May.
Open-top boats were rowed out to sea where men would try their luck with harpoons. If a whale was killed, it was towed back to the cove, hoisted out of the water and its blubber sliced into large strips. Next the blubber was cut into smaller chunks and melted in large iron cauldrons called “try pots”, to produce oil used primarily for lamp fuel.
Whale skeleton that is 100 years old.
Fortunately for the whales, with the advent of kerosene lamps in the late 1880’s, demand for whale oil slacked off and the local whaling industry fell on hard times.
By 1920, a group of scientists and foresters arrived to study the Monterey Cypress trees growing at Point Lobos and at Cypress Point on the north side of Carmel Bay. They realized that these trees do not grow naturally anywhere else in the world.
The museum opened in 1987.
Archaeologists and volunteers conducted an archaeological dig in the cabin’s floor and they found evidence of Chinese and Japanese occupancy. They also found whale vertebrae serving as the foundation. Thanks to the farsightedness of A. M. Allan, the last owner of Point Lobos, whose family sold the land to California State Parks in 1933, designating it to be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. (source)
There were several interesting things on display in the museum and there’s a recorded sound of the whale playing in the background. We were highly impressed by the friendly, very enthusiastic and knowledgeable docent who helped us understand the history of the place and told us very interesting facts about whales.
We truly appreciate the work and dedication that goes into the preservation of life in Carmel and would highly recommend visiting this park if you’re in the city.
And although the whales decided not to show themselves to us that day, we returned home inspired to study about them. We learned, for example, that fin whales pee the equivalent of about 3 bathtubs per day.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Route 1, Carmel, CA 93923