The Towers of South Tufa 2017

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How much are they? – “They’re tufa one!”

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

After having spent the previous day Hiking the Rush Creek Trail, I wanted to spend a little time at an old favorite place of mine, South Tufa. I have been visiting this location since 2007 and it never gets old. The only thing I would be doing different this time is actually hanging around at sunset rather than the pre dawn visits I have made to this place. Golden hour at South Tufa would definitely have some pretty spectacular lighting results especially when shooting with a circular polarizer. As always, I had all my gear in hand and ready to hit the south beach trails. There is a small fee of $3 bucks to park, but if you have a National Parks Pass (a.k.a. Interagency Pass), you can just hang that sucker up on your rear view mirror and start your venture.

“Parked the Starship and took a walk, Mono Craters are in the background.”

Mono Lake can be an ornithologists playground as many species of waterfowl and various migratory birds congregate here for the immense feast of Brine Flies that infest the shores. I don’t have to say that having a camera is a must, but having a camera and a pair of high powered binoculars can provide you all sorts of amazing views from wildlife to the scenery itself. For this run, I will be switching from my 24-70mm to my 70-200mm and both will be armed with B+W Circular Polarized filters for maximum on-camera highlight control.

“My trusty 5D MKII, 24-70mm lens, and a pair of badass Vortex HD Binoculars make up part or my tools for the evening.”

South Tufa Beach

GPS Coordinates: 37.9386776° N,119.029181° W

The southern shores of Mono Lake are home to one of the most iconic pre dawn photos that you have seen all over the internet. The tufa towers here can easily reach the height of a two story house and are razor sharp. There are signs everywhere telling visitors to refrain from climbing the tufa or taking pieces of it home. They also stress the importance of respecting the wildlife and particularly the nests that are atop some of the higher tufa structures. The towers are very ancient and made of limestone which makes them somewhat brittle so for the sake of preservation, “Keep Off!”

A very ancient lake

The lake itself is almost a million years old and is more than twice as salty as the ocean no thanks in part to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power diverting water from Mono Lake in 1941 after draining the life giving waters of Owens Lake. This drainage caused the salinity to skyrocket and made it impossible for any fish to ever have a chance of making this a home. The current lake is not completely dead however, there is a very simple ecosystem that still thrives here. Single Celled Planktonic Algae provide the food necessary for Brine Shrimp to survive. It is estimated that roughly 4-6 trillion Brine Shrimp occupy the lake, thus making a key food staple for all of the migratory birds that visit the lake. Alkali Flies also swarm the shores of the lake which also provide a key food source for the birds. Despite it’s lack of diversity, Mono Lake is considered to be one of the most productive eco systems on earth.

Mono Lake contains chlorides, carbonates, and sulfates – which is considered a “chloride-carbonate-sulfate” or “triple water” lake. With a composition of this nature, it is certainly alkaline with a pH of 10 making it almost three times as salty as the ocean. However, due to it’s altitude of 6,392 feet (1.948 m) it’s salinity slightly more than twice that of the ocean.

“These tufa structures are far from the shoreline and yet were completely submerged prior to 1941.” 

“Small forests of these tufa towers are scattered along the shores of Mono Lake.”

“A closer look at the tufa reveals a very sharp and abrasive limestone facade.”

“How are tufa towers formed?”

The tufa towers that you see along the shores of Mono Lake are made of a common mineral, limestone. The way they form is what makes them look so alien. When a submerged spring that is rich in calcium mixes with the carbonate heavy waters of Mono Lake, a chemical reaction occurs. This reaction causes the formation of a calcium-carbonate limestone which over time can build around the spring and upon itself until it reaches the surface. It is somewhat similar in the way that stalagmites are formed in caves only that this method has a source from below and not from above in the stalagmite’s case. Tufa towers can reach heights of more than 30 ft (9.1 m).

“Small clusters of tufa still reside in the water forming what appear to be small islands.”

“The lighting of sunset on the tufa shores is purely magical.”

The Newcomer…

Of all the birds that migrate to Mono Lake, the Osprey is one of the most recent additions. First spotted in 1985, the raptor has since made a summer home at Mono Lake with populations growing steadily every passing year. When the Osprey is not roosting on tall tufa towers, it’s flying south to Mexico for the winter. There are also Osprey from the north that will often visit the Mono Lake region as well, but they are less common. Unfortunately I did not get a shot of an Osprey in flight, but I did manage to spot their big nests made of small tree branches rather than the usual small twigs used by other birds.

“An Osprey nest sits atop one of the taller tufa towers on land.”

“The Osprey nest on this tower has a small chick inside and is located in a much safer location off shore.”

“The ultimate in Osprey nesting security is located far off into the lake.”

“As the sun begins to set, the tufa to the west of my location took on a hazy dream-like appearance.”

“Tall grass with a tint of strawberry blonde worked perfectly with the surrounding blues tones.”

“Remarkable to think that all this was underwater at one point.”

“A nearly full moon was up in the sky at the time and appears as a white blurry dot here.”

“Oh yeah, even these jerks were enjoying the Brine Shrimp and Alkali Fly buffet…lol!”

“So many islands of tufa at every turn, this place is simply extraordinary!”

“In the distance, Mt. Lewis and other surrounding peaks of the June Lake Loop area can be seen.”

“The sunlight is just about to say farewell for the day…”

“Starbursts and tufa make a great team!”

“The after-burst was extremely colorful, the only thing missing was more dynamic cloud formations.”

“And another day comes to a close for this ancient lake.”

“Time to head home…”

The record breaking snowfall this year was so immense that I have my fingers crossed in hopes that Mono Lake will get a little bit closer to it’s original depth. Unfortunately, this will mean that the tufa towers we see today will mostly disappear, but I am totally okay with that. I just want to see the damage be undone and return the lake to it’s former glory. The next restoration I would love to see after that would be taking Owens Lake from the current alkali dustbowl to an actual lake again, but all in due time I hope, for now, that just about wraps up this venture…

Until the next travel blog, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”



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