Member Spotlight: Big Sur Retreat for an Oceanographer & Natural Scientist  By

Member Spotlight: Big Sur Retreat for an Oceanographer & Natural Scientist

Private and surrounded on all sides by nature, Sandy Dutro’s Big Sur home right on the coast is a true retreat. She enjoys welcoming friends, family and guests she finds through to stay in her home by the ocean. As she says, “it is the kind of place that you often don’t leave the house when you’re staying.”

And why would you need to go anywhere else when this geodesic dome is your temporary home? It was built by a healer and a singer of traditional Indian music. The home retains a sense of peace and calm as soon as you walk in the door. Spending time in her home and garden is a pleasure, as is walking a few minutes to the beach along a stream. You can also hike a few minutes the other way to the old highway road to explore the redwood forest. And, you’ll see the iconic Bixby Bridge from the beach.

Bixby Bridge near Big Sur California
Bixby Bridge is just past the creek. While this popular lookout can get crowded, those staying in the geodesic dome can see it from the beach.

The neighboring homes are generously spread out, but there is a shared feeling of creativity that permeates the area.  Over the years, noteworthy beat generation poets have lived nearby; people like Alan Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher and founder of the famed San Francisco landmark, City Lights Bookstore. There are also local sculptors and artists, tapping into the creative spirit of the place.

Writers, artists and nature lovers have long been drawn to Big Sur for inspiration. So, it’s fitting that an oceanographer and natural scientist had an immediate connection with Sandy, the home and its coastline setting.

Sandy was thrilled that this academic couple’s specialties are the natural world and the ocean. Sara and Russell DiFiori were excited about the prospect of staying in such a perfect place for research, relaxation and reflection. They are both professors at community colleges in Southern California. They had originally planned a sabbatical to the Arctic Circle for last Fall; then came COVID and Plan B.

Going on Sabbatical by the Sea in Big Sur, California

Water breaking over the rocks in Big Sur California.
Water breaking over the rocks in Big Sur California.

In rethinking their Fall travel, Sara and Russell immediately thought of the Big Sur area, a place they’ve spent a lot of time.  They knew they’d be able to do research there while enjoying time living in another location.

Sara and Russell were both teaching mainly online with some in-person labs. Having taught some classes online for about 5 years before the pandemic began, this couple was able to adjust their labs and class syllabus’ quickly, plan to spend the month of November in Big Sur and keep up their dynamic instruction. Russell even noticed that they saw enrollment boosts in their classes from some parents of college-age students looking to earn units and learn something interesting during the pandemic.

As Sara said, staying in Sandy’s home “was a place for us to be creative. It is beyond inspiring: unbelievable, wild, it felt like going back to our roots.”

The water was a little cold, though, and with 25-foot waves for most of the month, it wasn’t exactly the best swimming. However, it was fascinating for them to live right next to the beach during a King Tide, an extremely high tide that generates huge waves (it’s very similar to the phenomena of the high tides and big waves that occur with a super moon).

Figaro the dog on the beach in Big Sur California
Figaro the dog on the beach in Big Sur California

Related: Finding the Perfect Match

Teaching Oceanography by the Ocean 

Big Sur coastline on a calm and sunny day.
The beach in Big Sur on a calm and sunny day.

In the past, Sara ran workshops funded by the National Science Foundation out of Monterey, California for about 5 years to teach other professors and teachers how to teach in the field (by the ocean) more successfully.

Her normal curriculum is physical oceanography. She teaches how the ocean moves sand around, sampling to learn about plankton counts. Her classes also analyze the contrasts between manicured beaches (like El Porto in Manhattan Beach, California) versus natural beaches (some of the rocky coves in Palos Verdes, California).

Creating an Inventory of Coastal Local Species with iNaturalist

Walking on a path through the trees near the Big Sur California coastline.
Walking on a path through the trees near the Big Sur California coastline.

In addition to his regular class schedule, Russell created an inventory of local species in this area on the coast of California that had never been mapped. He used iNaturalist, a community-based program that is a way of doing fieldwork with your phone. The app uses powerful artificial intelligence to identify different species in an area. Russell is involved with this through teaching with the California Naturalist Program run through the University of California, Davis

He found it fascinating since “this place had not been done, it was a really interesting blending of species from the North and South” [of coastal California]. His species list for Big Sur (and other environments) can be found here.

Returning to the Geodesic Dome on the Coast

Russell and Sara are enjoying spending more time in Sandy’s Big Sur Retreat this summer. A month in this beautiful home to continue their relaxation and research is the perfect way to regroup before the academic year begins again, especially if the ocean is a smidge warmer!

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