On Saturday at the Rio, Santa Cruzans Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom unveil the Monterey Bay-focused project they’ve been working on through the pandemic. It’s both an appreciation of where we live and a deep exploration, from the redwoods to the bay, of an environment that is near unique on the globe.
When you think of home, chances are you’re thinking about a politically delineated entity — such as a city, a town, or a county — or a socially defined thing, like a specific neighborhood.
Santa Cruz photographer Frans Lanting thinks of his home on a different scale, and his latest project is a pitch for you to think that way, too. His geography is shaped by natural forms and realities, not by human-made lines on maps. Like all of us, Lanting lives in a bioregion, which happens to be one of the most amazing such places in the world.
Lanting and his spouse/artistic partner, writer Chris Eckstrom, have launched an ambitious project called “Bay of Life: From Wind to Whales,” a portrait of the remarkable bioregion of the Monterey Bay, an area from just south of the San Francisco peninsula to the Big Sur coast, and inland as far as the Santa Clara Valley and the Salinas Valley.
“We would like to inspire people to look at Monterey Bay as a distinct ecoregion,” said Lanting, a longtime photographer at National Geographic. “It’s not just an extension of the San Francisco Bay Area, or a portion of the California Central Coast, which is really a nebulous [term] that goes all the way down to Santa Barbara. We feel that Monterey Bay has a unique identity and we’re doing this project to demonstrate that.”
The “Bay of Life” project is taking many forms, one as a live, on-stage presentation of photos and stories that comes to the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on Saturday for two performances (3 and 7 p.m.). It’s also a handsome book, now available in a regular edition and a collector’s edition. In January, “Bay of Life” finds yet another expression as a museum exhibition at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz. And perhaps most important, it’s an effort to raise awareness and resources for the various environmental organizations working to preserve and protect the Monterey Bay ecosystem.
For decades, Lanting and Eckstrom have traveled to wild or natural places on every continent and in every corner of the globe. In Santa Cruz particularly, Lanting has developed a reputation as the sojourner who helps us experience the majesty of faraway places. But in this case, he’s using his credibility as a photographer and naturalist to make the case of the familiar over the exotic, that Monterey Bay belongs in the conversation of the world’s greatest places.
“Every time we come back from Europe, from Africa or Antarctica, or someplace in Asia,” he said, “we are just struck by how special this place is. So we both bring to this project the global worldview, but also the nuanced perspective, having lived here for decades now. If you don’t have the global perspective, you might think, ‘Oh, well the rest of the world is also like this.’ No, it’s not.”
There are, of course, many features of the Monterey Bay region that, taken together, form the unique profile of the place. One of those is the Monterey Canyon, an underwater deep-ocean trench as large as the Grand Canyon, the head of which is just 100 meters offshore from Moss Landing. Indeed, “Bay of Life” features the work of other photographers besides Lanting, professional underwater photographers documenting the marine canyon.
Lanting pointed to the annual spring winds along the bay that churn up nutrients from the deep ocean, accessed through the Monterey Canyon. That nutrient-rich environment in turn attracts migrating whales and provides the phytoplankton and krill to nourish the diversity of fish populations in the bay. Such an ecological resource has made Monterey Bay a living laboratory for marine science.
“It’s an extraordinary natural phenomenon,” said Lanting, “and a remarkable scientific asset. We have the highest density of marine scientists anywhere in the world right here along the shores of Monterey Bay. It supports a new knowledge economy, with a budget of well over a quarter-billion dollars a year — maybe it’s approaching half a billion dollars now. And that is all because of the quality of the natural environment and also because of the proximity of all these amazing features. You know, I have to go all the way to Antarctica to study crabeater seals and Weddell seals, and it takes me weeks to get there. But we can get to Año Nuevo [State Park] in a matter of an hour to study elephant seals and do world-class science there.”
The natural features on the land side of Monterey Bay are no less extraordinary, much of it brought about by the persistent fog that is part of the experience of living in the area.
“The coastal fog influence is really essential for our quality of life,” said Lanting. “It’s an underappreciated phenomenon that we take for granted. And we need to be more aware of it. Yeah, sometimes it’s a little chilly. But think of [Monterey Bay] without fog. We will be several degrees warmer, for one thing, and Monterey Bay would look and feel more like L.A.”
However, Lanting said, “Bay of Life” is also a story of human history. A century ago, thanks to indiscriminate logging and fishing in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the Monterey Bay ecosystem was in a state of ruin. From whales to redwoods to abalone to fisheries, many natural resources were destroyed in the matter of one to two generations.
“If you scroll back by about 100 years ago,” said Lanting, “this was not a hotspot of biodiversity, it was a hotspot of ecological collapse. When you look at these old pictures or paintings of the Santa Cruz Mountains or the Monterey Peninsula, for that matter, from 100, 150 years ago, there’s not a tree on the hills. And the same with the bay because for decades and decades, along the coast of Monterey Bay, was the plunder of marine mammals — first the whales, and then the seals, and then everything else.”
Since then, a rise in environmental awareness has contributed to a remarkable turnaround.
“I think part of what we’re sharing with people is that damaged ecosystems can be brought back. And we think that’s an essential story for our time, because there’s no such thing left as pristine nature anymore. We’re dealing with impacted ecosystems everywhere. And if Monterey Bay can be healed, to the degree that we’re seeing in our lifetime, then that’s a story of hope for people elsewhere.”