Our son-in-law, Mike, went camping overnight with Lilah (our granddaughter) and some family friends. This is a traditional trip for the dads and girls, and they camp at New Brighton Beach, which is quite close to us. Tom and I decided to walk down the beach to say hello, but found they were tired and packing up to come home.
But we saw some amazing things on the walk. We have, against all logic, a cement boat here. That is, it once was a boat. Now it is a wrecked remnant of a boat, used by pelicans and other seabirds as a roost and nesting area above deck, and the interior (broken open long ago by waves and storms) has been populated by a rich array of sea life.
The cement boat has a history (and yes, it once did float on the water, despite being made of concrete). It was built as a tanker toward the end of WWI, and christened “S.S. Palo Alto,” but never saw service. It was purchased by an entertainment company and towed to Seacliff Beach in 1929. It was grounded a few yards offshore, and they built a pier out to it. For a brief time, it was a tourist amusement with a swimming pool, dances, refreshments, and all the other accoutrements of a seaside tourist trap. After two years, the entertainment company went bankrupt and the boat was abandoned. She cracked open amidships, but was used by the locals as a fishing pier.
Today, the pier still runs out to the boat, but there is a wide gap between the end of the pier and the boat. There is a barrier at the end of the pier, apparently to prevent people from attempting to leap the gap. The pier is still used for fishing, but the S.S. Palo Alto is basically a tiny manmade island, a bird refuge, and a synthetic reef.
And, lest this sound romantic, it stinks to high heaven of bird shit. It is one of the most highly-polluted beaches in Northern California, thanks to the birds, but this doesn’t seem to deter campers and picnickers one bit, even though I personally find the stench gagulous.
But we had to walk past the concrete boat today, and as we headed down the beach, tens of thousands of sooty shearwaters appeared and began to settle on the water to feed. Sooty shearwaters, which look like dirty seagulls, are migratory. They nest in New Zealand, but migrate around the Pacific, spending much of the summer in Northern California. In New Zealand, they are often referred to as “muttonbirds,” which is indicative of what the NZ settlers did with them. The Maori still harvest about 250,000 sooty shearwaters every year for food, oils, and fat. Yet many thousands (of shearwaters, not Maori) still wind up in Northern California every summer, where the natives prefer virtually anything over fricaseed seabird.
The shearwaters were joined by the pelicans, gulls, dolphins and seals, all of which followed the unseen school of fish back and forth along the coast, gobbling as fast as possible. All in all, it wasn’t a good day to be an anchovie.