Wave watching

Last night the moon was new, meaning that we are now in spring tides. The spring tides occur during the new and full phases of the moon and result in the largest swings between high and low tides; in the weeks between the full and new moons we have neap tides, during which the height difference between high and low tide is smaller. As an intertidal biologist I look forward to and make use of the spring low tides, and after a year of pretty intensive field work I can feel in my body when they should be coming around. I love being that tuned in to the rhythm of the tides.

Yesterday a very large northwest swell came through the region, combining with the late morning high tide to generate some awesome (in the literal sense of the word) waves. For example, huge waves broke over the pier in Ventura, causing officials to close the pier until further notice. Alas, I was in class all morning and didn’t get out to the marine lab until early afternoon, at which time the tide had receded (yesterday’s low was at 16:48) so I didn’t get to catch any of the action.

Made up for it today, though. Knowing that high tide would be at about 10:00 I made sure to be out at the lab for my daily chores after breakfast. Patience was rewarded!

Here’s the view from the cliff at Terrace Point:

Big wave at Terrace Point, Santa Cruz, California. 12 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong

Big wave at Long Marine Lab, Santa Cruz, California.
12 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

The waves were at least twice as tall as I am. I could feel them crash into the cliff beneath my feet. There’s nothing quite like being reminded that Mother Nature has home field advantage. Here’s the action looking east towards Natural Bridges and Santa Cruz. Hard to believe that I spend hours crawling around on those benches, isn’t it?

Out at Terrace Point there’s a non-public-accessible platform that lab staff have access to for water sampling. Every day, conditions permitting, a technician goes down the steps and throws a bucket off the cliff to grab a water sample and take the temperature; it’s a fun task that I’ve done a bunch of times. I don’t think the outside water temperature is going to be taken today. Take a look at this sequence of photos, taken in a 5-second time span, and imagine yourself standing on that platform. Yeah, you don’t want to be there.

Before:

The wave approaches 12 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong

12 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

During:

12 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong

12 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

And after:

12 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong

12 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

The biggest splashes occur when a wave is reflected off the cliff and crashes back into a second oncoming wave. To see this I walked over to a different area of the lab and looked down onto Younger Lagoon. There’s a rock island in the mouth of the lagoon that almost always has birds perched on it. Sometimes the birds are pelicans or pigeons. Today they were cormorants and gulls.

Pelicans and gulls at the mouth of Younger Lagoon. 12 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong

Cormorants and gulls at the mouth of Younger Lagoon.
12 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

The west-facing cliff of Younger Lagoon is perfectly situated to reflect back these northwest swells. Watch for yourself:

Watching this reminded me of a passage from Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, in which he describes the waves that ultimately sank the fishing boat Andrea Gail in the North Atlantic. It’s a visceral demonstration of the ocean’s power. All of a sudden the adage “Never turn your back to the ocean” seems rather trite, doesn’t it?

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