Thursday, September 28, 2006
Our tiny Cessna 182—a plane not much bigger than a car—banked left around the corner of Point Pinos. The breathtaking lower jaw of the Monterey Bay wheeled gracefully below us like some classic beauty with an eye for the photographer’s camera.
A gentle northwest swell corrugated the glassy blue-green ocean below before breaking into the sublime bays of Pacific Grove. Farther south, through the vague blur of the plane’s single prop, the greens and grays of Pebble Beach diminished to the woods of Del Monte Forest and the sharp snout of Pescadero Point. Beyond lay the golden sands of Carmel, the mysterious spires of Point Lobos, and the steeply-terraced kingdom of Big Sur.
Ostensibly, the four of us—myself, my photographer-sweetheart, our pilot, and UC Santa Cruz Professor Mark Carr—were surveying the county’s newly-designated Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) from above thanks to LightHawk, an inspired organization that “champions environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight.”
In reality, we were glued to our windows, staring down at the coastline as if it were the very face of God. It was hard not to wonder, “How can insignificant humans damage anything this powerful?” Of course, the ocean’s aloof magnificence belies the fragile, intricate ecosystems it supports. Because it appears so mysterious and omnipotent, we’ve always assumed it could never be depleted, let alone destroyed.
Yet with the emergence of industrial trawlers and the ever-growing demands of our viral population, we are systematically laying waste to life in the ocean—working our way from the biggest species to the smallest. With the world’s fisheries in sharp decline and marine biologists quietly warning politicians that we’ll all be choking down jellyfish sandwiches soon, the state frantically created a new network of MPAs to safeguard California’s marine biodiversity.
Although it really looked no different, the result of all this work lay below us. The new MPAs, which should be enforced by as soon as December, were created largely on the movement distances of the fish it seeks to protect. Each MPA has a minimum size of three to six miles to ensure that the bulk of the local population spends a majority of its life within its boundaries.
As we continued south, we flew over an exception: the Carmel Pinnacles off Stillwater Cove in Pebble Beach. Primarily a spectacular underwater feature seen only by scuba divers, the Pinnacles MPA is significantly smaller and doesn’t extend to the shore like other MPAs.
We gazed down at the water, trying to visualize the imaginary square.
“We don’t want to go in the water,” our pilot told us with a smile. “It’s cold.”
He would know. Our pilot was acclaimed cameraman and film producer Mark Shelley, whose Sea Studios Foundation just made the landmark ecological documentary Strange Days On Planet Earth with National Geographic.
Despite a broken arm and a few broken ribs from a recent bike accident, Shelley had volunteered his time, plane and considerable expertise to LightHawk. Granted, he made it clear that it wasn’t much of a sacrifice given the perfect flying conditions.
As we approached Point Lobos, Mark Carr explained that the near-shore half of the new three-mile designation was a no-take zone, while the outer half was a conservation area—meaning that certain species like tuna, albacore and spot prawns could still be taken.
From Lobos we flew into the enchanted world of Big Sur. Suddenly we were sharing airspace with steep marine terraces. Shelley reminded us that the mountains didn’t stop at the water: Below the glassy surface lay a landscape as equally dramatic and more biologically diverse.
Giddy and near tears from the experience, we continued down the coast toward the next MPA, which roughly surrounds Andrew Molera State Park. Integrated with the landscape, familiar landmarks like Garrapatta Beach and Bixby Bridge took on an alien beauty.
From Molera we flew past Pfeiffer State Park and south to Big Creek, the last MPA of the day. From Big Creek we climbed 1,000 feet to return along the spine of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Redwood trees overflowed out of box canyons and bony white granite peeked out from beneath chaparral fur.
As we flew north from Cachuagua into Carmel Valley, the landscape suddenly changed. Abundant oak and madrone gave way to houses and roads.
It got worse over San Benancio Canyon. Here, the hillsides were bald—from overgrazing, according to Carr—for miles in every direction.
The vision begged a comparison with our oceans. Much of the
life hidden under the surface has already been stripped as
thoroughly bare as these hills. Hopefully, with the help of
biologists and conservationists like Mark Carr, Mark Shelley
and LightHawk, what remains can still be protected.
For more information about LightHawk, call 307-332-3242 or visit LightHawk.org.