Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Light Station at Point Piedras Blancas

Lighthouses have always evoked a romantic feeling with people. Travelers go out of their way to visit a lighthouse. Your visit to the Central Coast can include just such a tour.

Head to Highway 1 on the coast and go towards San Simeon, the town that Hearst Castle put on the map. The castle, as fantastic as it is, is not the edifice you are seeking. Travel past the entrance, and past the turn-off to the elephant seal viewing. Already you are seeing your destination, the lighthouse named for Point Piedras Blancas.

To tour this light station, time your visit for a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday morning. Tours start one and a half miles north of the entrance to the light station at the old Piedras Blancas Motel. Be there at 9:45 A.M. No reservations are necessary and tour guides will be waiting for you there. Tours cost $10.00 for adults, $5.00 for ages six to 17, and free for children five and under.

Next you will car caravan with your guide to the lighthouse. Tours are led by docents from the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association, a non-profit organization involved in restoring the site.

Construction of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse began in 1874 and was finished in 1875 when the first order Fresnel lens was installed. You will notice that the top of the lighthouse is missing this lens. Originally the lighthouse stood more than 100 feet high. It is now 74 feet high. In 1949 the lens and the upper section of the structure were removed due to earthquake damage. The beautiful Fresnel lens has survived however, and you can see it close up in an enclosure in downtown Cambria.

In the early days lighthouses were recognized by ships at sea during daylight hours by their special colors. Each lighthouse was assigned a specific set of colors and was painted accordingly. A ship passing by could tell where they were based on those colors. Whatever the colors, the ship's captain could spy them through his looking glass and say, "aha, white with red, we must be at Point Piedras Blancas."

This identification would not work under two other circumstances of course; if it was foggy or if it was nighttime. Then both light and sound came into play. The timing of the flashes of light was also assigned and the light station couldbe recognized in this manner. Light flashes could be two quick flashes followed by three long ones. Whatever the configuration was, this timing gave away the location of the lighthouse. The light from the first order Fresnel lens could be seen 18 miles out to sea.

In 1906 a fog signal building was built. Inside was the latest equipment to make sound loud enough to carry out to sea. The first sounds used were similar to a train whistle, and then a siren was used. Finally the traditional fog horn blast came to be and the light station was recognized by the length of the blasts. These first blasts used were loud enough to break eardrums.

Piedras Blancas means white rocks in Spanish and the large rocks just offshore are just that. Over the years many birds have roosted or nested here and their droppings, called guano, are the source of the color. At times in the 1800s guano was harvested from these rocks by passing schooners. After a harvesting like this, when the sea breezes blew, an odor wafted across the light station making the lives of the lighthouse keeper and his family a bit miserable.

As you tour the lighthouse grounds with the docent all these interesting facts will be related

and as you walk the paths you will pass by fields full of native vegetation. Up until a few years ago this was not the case. For many years these grounds consisted of overgrown iceplant called capobrotus, the type seen along California freeways. Volunteers worked long and hard pulling this invasive plant out and miraculously the native vegetation began to return on its own. Docents have placed interpretive signs near the plants to benefit recognition.

Just offshore you will see California sea lions lounging on the rocks and smaller harbor seals swimming in the sea. Brown pelicans, cormorants and gulls will be perched on the rocks. Docents will show you skeletons of some of the marine mammals that frequent the area, such as the colony of elephant seals that took up habitation on the beach below the lighthouse in

1990. From an original group of about 19 seals, the colony has grown to 10,000 each breeding season. Just south of the lighthouse is the main seal beach where there is a boardwalk and viewing platform.

The tour will also take you inside the lighthouse where there are displays explaining the early equipment used in operating the beacon. Visitors are not yet allowed to climb to the top of the lighthouse, but after future restorations, this too will be available. In the middle of the interior hangs a weighted pendulum that extends into an eight-foot hole in the floor. The pendulum swung and was part of the apparatus that made the beacon up top turn.

Different fuels were used over the years to burn and produce the light. Oil and kerosene were two of them and these were kept in a small bunker just below the lighthouse and in front of the fog signal building. This bunker was constructed of concrete and is the first concrete building built in San Luis Obispo County. Light keepers and their assistants had to haul the oil or kerosene from the bunker up to the lighthouse and then ascend the winding staircase to the lens housing area.

Every year from March through May, biologists from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center come to the light station to count the number of California Gray whale mothers and calves heading north. They also take note of migrating birds and count sea otters that frequent the waters offshore.

Piedras Blancas Light Station which was once administered by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and then the U.S. Coast Guard, is now managed by the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management. The BLM and the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association are slowly restoring this wonderful historical edifice to its former glory. A tour of the light station will be a highlight of your visit to the Central Coast.