Posted by: thecaliforniacoastalmission | July 14, 2010

Diablo Canyon, Pismo Beach, Don Canestro, Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, Snowy Plovers and Haikus

New story about us in the SLO Tribune

We have now made it through San Luis Obispo county and are passing into Santa Barbara. Over the past few days we have kayaked from Morro Bay, around the sinister looking Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, passed the Pismo Dunes Vehicle Recreation Area and into Santa Barbara County.

Approaching the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in the fog was surreal. The reactors are surrounded by miles of untouched coastline, adding to the “secret lair” feel of the experience. Michael and I both starting humming the James Bond theme song as we approached the rocks outside Diablo Canyon. The kelp beds surrounding the rocks were some of the thickest we have seen all trip, and we weren’t quite sure whether to be reassured or alarmed by this realization.

Further down the coast, we spotted a remote beach from our kayaks and chose to go ashore. Large cliffs make the beach inaccessible from land, and there wasn’t a footprint on the sand. The only things resembling footprints were a few pieces of plastic debris washed above the high tide line: a quiet reminder of the far-reaching influences of our actions.  We photographed quadrats of the intertidal, finding some of the largest goose barnacles we have ever seen. We combed the sand, checked out abalone shell sea glass and marveled to ourselves that these untouched slices of paradise can exist in a state with 30 million people.

Later in the day, we had the privilege of speaking with Don Canestro, the manager of Rancho Marino Reserve in Cambria. The reserve extends across 500 acres of pristine coastal habitat ranging from rocky intertidal to coastal grasslands and Monterey Pine forests. That morning, Don had been out monitoring the reserve’s population of Black Abalone. Since ocean warming during the El Nino winter of 82-83, black abalone populations across California declined drastically. The culprit behind the deaths is withering foot syndrome, a bacterial infection that attacks the digestive systems of abalone. Rancho Marino monitors the black abalone population for signs of withering foot syndrome.

Don gave some historical perspective by talking about abalone population cycles dating back to the Chumash times. Large piles of red abalone shells, the leftovers from massive Chumash seafood feasts, have been found on the reserve, suggesting that red abalone and black abalone populations rise and fall in alternating cycles. Will withering foot syndrome be just another chapter in this cycle of alternating population cycles? Don said that if his work as a biologist has taught him anything, it is that populations move in cycles. Nonetheless, he continues to study Rancho Marino with inspired excitement.

Further south in Avila, we happened upon a group of surf fly fisherman casting for halibut. They were enthusiastic about the days potential, but have noticed declines in halibut number since they began fishing years ago.

From Avila, we kayaked south to Pismo Beach, camping in the thick of the Oceano Dunes Vehicle Recreation Area. After three weeks of Central Coast solitude, falling asleep to the sounds of ATVs puttering past our tents was a shock to the system. Pismo Beach is the only place in California where you can legally drive out onto the sand, and this weekend saw no shortage of takers.

To give some balance to our Pismo experience, the three of us kayaked further down to the farming town of Guadalupe. Although only ten minutes south of Pismo Beach on Highway 1, Guadalupe is a world away from Pismo. While Pismo feels like the summer hang out for the off road enthusiasts of Fresno and Bakersfield, Guadalupe is a quiet farming town that operates largely in Spanish.

In Guadalupe we met Dan McElhinney and Mario Castellanos from the Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes Center. The Dunes Center was founded in the wake of the Unocal oil spill to empower to community of Guadalupe through ecological education.

Mario and Dan stressed the importance of locating the center in Guadalupe, and not in Pismo Beach where the money and tourism is located. The goal at the Dunes center is to get the local community of Guadalupe, where the average person has a ninth-grade education, interested in education through exposure to natural sciences. The secondary goal is the give to community of Guadalupe a sense of ownership over the Dunes. Dan hopes the tangible effects of the Dunes Center will be measured not only in acres of restored dunes, but also in more high school kids from Guadalupe choosing to attend college. Lane, Michael and I were all impressed with the center’s use of environmental science to inspire kids to pursue higher education. We also realized how lucky we are to live the lives we live.

Dan was gracious enough to sit down a chat with us for nearly an hour about the history and ecology of the Dunes. We learned about the greatly varied human history in the Dunes. Recently Pirates of Caribbean III was filmed in the dunes, and Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley sightings spiced things up in Guadalupe. Back in the 20’s, The Ten Commandments was filmed in the area as the dunes of San Luis Obispo are a much more convenient location that the dunes of Egypt. After filming was completed, the producers elected to bury the entire set in the sand, pyramids and all. Apparently they were worried about leaving the set exposed, as competing movie companies could come along and shoot similar films using the same set. Locals have been finding Egyptian “artifacts” in the Dunes ever since.

The dunes stretch from Pismo Beach in the north to Point Sal in the south.  Where vehicle traffic used to be allowed over the entire dunes, it is now limited to about 10% of the total dune area. A reason for this was the infamous snowy plover, one of the two endangered bird species in the dunes, lays its eggs under the sand. Thus much of the dunes are roped off to protect the snowy plover population.

For the curious, Dan mentioned a healthy Dune ecosystem consists of roughly 60% exposed sand and 40% dune vegetation.

Dan also told us about the Dunites, a group of Bohemian pre-hippies that scraped out an existence for themselves in the Dunes in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. These disenfranchised souls spent their days painting and writing poetry, none of which ever reached a popular audience. That afternoon, I wandered out into the dunes searching for the last of the Dunites, but all I found were ATV tracks and Tecate cans.

As Steinbeck and Ricketts said, ecology is ALL. In Pismo’s case, the ecology consists of everything from the Pismo motorheads to the fragile snowy plovers, all interacting together to form the superorganism that is the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes.

Heavy winds forecasted, so we may be in the area for a while. That’s all for now. I’ll leave you with some haikus from the trip.

Peace and Love,


Camping Utensils

Spoon and fork is spork

But what of the knife-fork-spoon?

The trusty knorkoon.

South of Big Sur

Slipping our way south

Time loses significance

Spent bean tins mark days

Diablo Canyon

Behind foggy rocks

Nuclear reactors hide

I feel like James Bond

Pismo Beach

Snowy plovers, hicks

Endangered and a danger

Side by side in sand

Our SLO Diet

Our perplexed bodies

Chowder Burritos and Fries

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner


Rancho Marino Reserve

The Dunes Center


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