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Californication - an epic tale to rival Ulysses ... (it's a long blog!)

To borrow an irreverent title from a famous irreverent California band - this was the absolute trip of a lifetime - albeit actually starting in the hilariously crazy city of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Sarah and I had been planning our Vegas to San Francisco road trip, for over 6 months and towards the end of September it was suddenly time to fly!

Any trip you book yourself from start to finish, with flights, transport, hotels, events, restaurants, excursions, and perhaps just time for a dash of West Coast WILDlife, is always going to be exciting, albeit with fingers crossed that your plans come together in the way you had both hoped.

This time everything came together perfectly in an entirely uncharacteristic (for me anyway!) marvel of super organisation. As you can imagine this success was based largely on Sarah's far superior skills in this area, however, somehow, between us, we managed to put tour operators and travel agents to shame with a truly bespoke holiday that we will never forget.

I'll spare this blog the Vegas party-time highlights and focus on the WILDlife moments which peppered the road trip along Death Valley, up (both geographical and altitudinal) into Yosemite, across to Cambia, then Monterey Bay and finally San Francisco.

Landscape photography remains a mystery to me, but I thought I'd share at least a few holiday snaps, to give you a sense of the amazing changes in scenery along the way.

.... and so to the WILDlife!

Actually this was most certainly a 'couples holiday' rather than a 'wildlife photography holiday', but with even Sarah captivated by being able to stand on the low cliffs overlooking the Cambria coast just south of Monterey Bay and watch Dolphins feeding - there was just time to squeeze in the occasional chance to take some pictures.

A few Turkey Vultures, the odd distant Hawk and heat baked warblers in Death Valley, were interesting to see but not really photo material.

The real sights were to begin on the West coast, but not before a walk through Mariposa Grove, high in Yosemite Valley (home to stands of incredible giant redwoods) yielded the sudden appearance of a Red-tailed Hawk with prey, overhead. The poor light, my 'holiday' lens and the surprise factor combined to mean that I only really got one focused frame captured in the hurried blast from my camera pointed in the birds direction, as it swooped from one tree to another.

We hit the west coast at Sea Otter Inn, Moonstone Beach, Cambria, CA a spot famous for well ... Sea Otters!

Actually, the thing that struck me straight away, was an extraordinary sight in the Hotel car park! Yards from the shoreline and planted with beautiful flowers and Bottle Brush trees and whizzing amongst them .... Hummingbirds! A true New World only family, Hummingbirds make an amazing sight for a European wildlife enthusiast. Grabbing my camera from the seat of our SUV, I managed to grab an image that may well stay as one of a kind in my collection until I get on that hoped for trip to Costa Rica at some point in the future.

The wildlife photographers challenge with this holiday is that it was, by definition ... a road trip!

This meant that I had to be quick if I wanted to grab some shots. A classic misty Californian dawn didn't look too promising on the morning we were due to depart for Monterey Bay via the Pacific Highway and Big Sur. Hoping for the murk to lift to enable us to enjoy the amazing views promised in our research, we played for time with a leisurely breakfast and a walk along the boardwalk.

Seals on the rocks, Sea Otters floating offshore, and literally tens of thousands of seabirds flocking over the anchovy shoals, brought the morning to life despite the low light.

I still haven't finished a forensic examination of some of the wide angle shots I took to help me identify what I was seeing, but clearly lots of Shearwaters, Petrels, Guillemots, Terns and much more, including ... Brown Pelicans.

Technically difficult to get the settings right in order to keep the ISO sensible and yet cope with a large bird, flying past, I wish I'd used a wider depth of field because getting the eye and huge beak in focus as well as the tips of the wing-span, proved er .... tricky! Truth be told it was an epic fail in 99% of my attempts with the following shot as the nearest to a proper shot managed. Still ... an amazing sight and a beautiful creature, particularly in the adult plumage.

Still with me?

Time for the journey up to Monterey Bay and some special sights in store, but not before a stop at the world famous Elephant Seal Roost, just a few miles into our journey up Highway 1.

These beasts manage to combine being absolutely flippin' MASSIVE, with being impossibly cute in the case of the youngsters and awe inspiringly scary as the juvenile males practice the sparring that can turn deadly, when the mating season arrives.

Finally .... time for Whale watching followed by some Sea Otters as the wildlife highlight of the holiday!

I started the blog with my 'shot of the hols' so you already know what to expect here. For anyone planning a similar trip, I can heartily recommend Fast Raft ...

... based at Moss Landing, 25 mins north of Monterey Bay itself, rather than one of the big touristy boats that are higher and slower from a photographers perspective.

Click on the link above and you will see that the small boat takes just 8 people at high speed and virtually at water level.

Our morning began with heavy sea mist and lent an eerie feel to the whole trip. Fortunately, this didn't seem to spook the Humpback Whales or our skipper and wildlife ecologist Kate, who found them with great skill and the utmost care not to disturb these amazing creatures.

Clearly, the Humpbacks hadn't read the rules about remaining 50m distance away as several times Kate had to re-start the engines, to gently ensure that the Whales could hear where we were and perhaps not swim right into us, as looked likely on a couple of occasions!!!

This is an experience to be experienced and for once I'm not sure that any photographs can begin to do justice to that, if for no other reason that photographs can't help you to smell - (a strange and weirdly not altogether unpleasant combination of fish and finely aged Parmesan cheese) and hear their huge breath exhalations whilst feeling the power of their fins and flukes as they hit the water.

Nonetheless here's a few close encounters - you'll have to add an imaginary sense overload to what you see!

.... and so to the final chapter (from a wildlife perspective at least).

Sea Otters.

A happy mistake with my booking schedule meant that rather than going straight from the whale watching to the Sea Otters on what was still a grey day, I got to go the next (sunnier) afternoon instead - happy days!

Elkhorn Slough (pronounced 'Sloo') is the home to rafts of Sea Otters all doing their thing as well as waders (sometimes chased by predators above), all sorts of Herons, Seals, Sea Lions and Elegant Terns, looking onomatopoeic.

An ex US Coast Guard flat-bed boat, with extra space for wildlife photographers (for an extra fee of course), was the perfect platform for great close up views and once in a lifetime (probably) chances to shoot these beautiful animals at close quarters, starting with some squabbling Sea Lions as we left the harbour.

The Sea Otters were amazing - so much bigger than Eurasian River Otters familiar at home and ultra comfortable in their environment, fearless in the face of a small boat full of wildlife enthusiasts and their oohs and aahs !

Having welcomed the improvement in the weather, the extra sunlight made for a tricky technical finish to the afternoon, as we sailed close to several female Sea Otters, feeding young.

The naturalist hosting the trip explained that Sea Otters are usually 'brunette' but can be blond! Apparently, when restoring and re-establishing the Sea Otter population at the conservancy, a particularly 'virile' male Otter affectionately named 'Biff' (think, Back to the Future), successfully introduced his trademark blonde good looks in copious amounts, to the gene pool. As a result a very high percentage of the population sport a fine head of blonde hair, testament to the success of Biff and his romantic exploits!

All of which didn't help me with the light producing very 'contrasty' shots which turned out a little less well than I hoped, even if the wildlife sighting was still a real pleasure. Here, the fluffy cub is nursing on it's Mother's dry stomach as she floats on her back. It will be a while before the cub acquires the necessary density of fur that helps provide waterproofing in the adult animals.

So there you have it, or at least there you have some of it, because I've barely featured a fraction of the amazing sights seen.

I can heartily recommend California and the west coast in particular - just make sure you've had a good breakfast before the Whale watching, it's not the swell of the water you need to be braced for, but fish and cheese in sea monster breath which calls for a strong stomach and sturdy sea legs to get the shot - 'thar she blows!!!'

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