Gray Whale Cove

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As well as taking some photos of San Francisco on my trip down to California, I also wanted to get some shots of the water. The protection that Vancouver Island offers us in Vancouver, while extremely beneficial from the point of view of things like tsunamis, does mean that it’s very unusual to get large waves, so I wanted to take advantage of the unsheltered coastline.

After doing some research, Gray Whale Cove State Beach, near Half Moon Bay, looked like a good candidate. The weather where I was based, on the bay side, was completely cloudless — the kind of weather that makes you want to move there, but that rarely results in good sunsets, but as I was only in town for a few days, I wasn’t going to be too picky. As I approached the coast, however, it appeared that I might have the opposite problem — too much cloud!

As I arrived at the State Beach, it was almost completely overcast from overhead to the horizon. Despite this, I started scouting locations. Two things were immediately clear — that there was only one really good photo location for the kind of shot I wanted, and that there were some very serious waves!

It was almost high tide, and the location I wanted to shoot in was effectively an alcove, with rock walls to my left and directly behind, the ocean ahead, and a large rock outcrop on the right side, with a passage behind it to the main beach. It was also being pummelled by the incoming waves. It appeared that my preparation, consisting of putting on my waterproof hiking boots, would probably not be sufficient.

With this in mind I took off my backpack, putting it well out of reach of the high tide, and got my super-wide angle lens out. Merely walking into the alcove got me soaked up to the knees! I took a few shots but soon decided that shooting without a tripod wasn’t going to get me the results I wanted, so I headed back out to grab the tripod and my filters, and to remove important electronic items such as my phone and car keys from my pockets, just in case.

It didn’t take long to be aware that this was a sensible precaution. While the average wave coming into the alcove would reach my knees, every 10th wave or so would be much larger. I frequently found myself underwater to above my waist, and even as high as my chest was pretty damp from the big sprays of water coming over the rock outcrop visible at the far left. At these times I simply had to hold the tripod above my head to keep the camera as dry as possible.

As sunset approached, it looked like it would be a disappointment. I had some good shots, so I wasn’t too upset, but I had hoped for a bit of colour into what would otherwise likely be black and white photos. However, with just a few minutes to go, a break in the clouds appeared at the horizon. As the minutes ticked down to sunset, suddenly the horizon lit up with golden warm light.

I quickly snapped as many shots as I could, generally only being able to shoot for about 30 seconds before too much spray built up on my graduated filter, and required a frustrating cleaning with a cloth that was more and more resembling something used to wash dishes. The light lasted for only about 5 minutes, but it was magical while it did.

After the sun had set, I headed out of the alcove and was pleased to see that my camera bag was still there (having been out of sight of me for over an hour). I squelched damply back to the car and headed back to my hotel. It took two days in the warm sun for my shoes to dry out!

1/4 second exposure with a 3 stop graduated ND filter and a circular polarizer.

beach california golden hour seascape sunset
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