An Ancient Sea

(May 2023)

     Imagine walking along a beach with a large body of salt water just offshore.  In front of you lies a fantasyland of stone formations rising up out of the sand.  You wonder what they are and how did they get there.  Well, this isn't the ocean and you are not on the coast of California.  This happens to be a place called Mono Lake. Located east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, this lake is truly an ancient sea.  Covering an area of about  60 square miles, it is one of the oldest lakes in North America.  Fed by mountain streams laden with salts and minerals, and with no outlet for the water, this lake is 2.5 times saltier and 80 times as alkaline as the ocean.   

    In 1941, the city of Los Angeles began diverting the streams that feed Mono Lake, causing the level of the lake to drop more than 40 feet.  Many concerns were then raised by the local citizens, among those being the effects on the lake ecosystem, wind blown alkali dust and the aesthetics of a shrinking lake.  One other thing that occurred with the lower lake level was that it revealed a world of interesting land formations that were once hidden below the surface.  These formations are known as "tufas".

Untitled photo

Standing at a spot that was once below the water's surface, one can get a first look at the tufa towers rising out of Mono Lake.

     The tufa towers that are seen around the lake are formed from limestone, or Calcium Carbonate.  Formations like these can also be seen  at other alkaline lakes around the world.  What makes Mono Lake unique is the quantity and variety of the towers at this location, with the greatest concentration being found at the South Tufa area.   A walk here is truly an "out of this world" experience.  There are many tall tufas rising up from the sandy beach where the lake has receded the most.  Other towers can be seen emerging from the surface of the lake. 

     While the lake looks to many people as a dead sea, there is plentiful life to be seen.  The water is too salty to support any fish, but there are trillions of brine shrimp and alkali flies that thrive here.  There are over 80 migratory bird species that visit the area for this food supply.  I photographed a few Ospreys nesting on top of tufas in the lake, which I found surprising since these birds most often feed on fish.  It just goes to show how some species can adapt and survive in whatever environment they happen to be in.

     Herds of wild horses also make their way down to the lake during the winter months.  Many do not survive the harsh conditions, with their remains being found and removed by rangers in the spring.  Although I did not see any horses during this visit, I did see much of what they leave behind-piles of manure.  It just forces one to be extra careful with every step you take while walking around this area.

Untitled photo

A mated pair of nesting Ospreys sits on top of a tufa tower rising up form the lake.

     There have been ongoing efforts over several years to save Mono Lake, and restore the level of the water to what it once was in the past.  If this is successful, the lake will reclaim the tufas and they will no longer be visible.  Until then, however, they can still be seen and enjoyed by visitors to this area.  And, of course, they can be photographed, as they make excellent subjects for landscape images. My goal was to capture some fresh photographs of the lake during my most recent visit in May, 2023.

     When I first arrived it was mid afternoon.  The light was bright and harsh under a clear blue sky and an intense sun.  Definitely not an ideal time for creating landscape images.  After walking around the South Tufa area and snapping a few photos I decided to head on over to my hotel room.  I had every intention to return in the early evening, even though the weather forecast was for potential storm activity.  I know from experience that the best cloud formations can occur in these conditions, and at the sunset hour they can pick up some incredible light.  When I saw the clouds building up in the late afternoon sky I knew it was time to return to the lake.  Upon my arrival there I could immediately tell that this was going to be a special evening.

Untitled photo

Tufa towers line the shore of Mono Lake under a bright afternoon sun.

     As I approached the lake the sun was getting lower in the western sky.  Looking to the east I noticed the clouds beginning to light up in vivid orange, pink and blue hues.  As the evening progressed the colors became even more intense.  With storm clouds quickly appearing and darkness settling in I knew I had to make the most of the limited time I had.  Walking along the beach and through the limestone tufa towers I was able to capture several images of this incredible landscape.  As the wind picked up and rain drops started to fall I quickly packed up my gear and headed back to my car.  Driving back to my hotel I thought how this latest visit to Mono Lake did not disappoint.  I also wondered how this landscape will change and what it might look like in the years to come as the water level of the lake is restored to what it once was.  

Untitled photo

Clouds building up in the eastern sky are seen exhibiting orange, blue and pink colors in the early evening at Mono Lake.

Untitled photo

A cluster of tall tufa towers stand out under a sky of thickening storm clouds during the blue hour.

Untitled photo

The tufa formations of Mono Lake seem to glow from the last rays of light as darkness approaches.