Hearst Castle Zebras on Highway 1 in San Simeon

San Simeon Zebras and Hearst Castle

About 125 wild zebras roam the terrain of Hearst Ranch in San Simeon (per SLO Tribune), descendants of the zebras who once lived on the Hearst property and in Hearst’s exotic animal menageries. I always look for the zebras when I’m driving the San Simeon stretch of Highway 1, but this was the first time I’d seen them so perfectly placed, posing in sync with the gorgeous backdrop of Hearst Castle on the hill.

According to the Hearst Castle website, “in 1958, when the Castle was given to the State, there were Rocky Mountain elk, tahr goats, llamas, white fallow deer, zebras, Barbary sheep and sambar deer still on the ranch. Today, some of these animals survive.”

Zebra Stripes: To Camouflage … or Not?

The zebras can be surprisingly difficult to spot which seems impossible given their vivid stripes. But, the light tends to flatten those distinctions at a distance. Although zebra stripes were long thought to be an evolutionary form of camouflage, a 2016 study revisited that idea by viewing the stripes through filters emulating a predator’s vision. “In open, treeless habitats, where zebras tend to spend most of their time, the researchers found that lions could see the outline of striped zebras just as easily as they could see similar-sized prey with fairly solid-colored hides. The study concluded that “compared to the uniform pelage of other sympatric herbivores it appears highly unlikely that stripes are a form of anti-predator camouflage.” [UC Davis: Zebra Stripes not for Camouflage]

The San Simeon zebras can be a bit skittish if people approach too closely on foot, an always-wise response to human intrusion. So, I photographed above images from a distance with my Lumix 100-400 lens, using the car as a blind. Many wild animals feel less threatened by a human in a vehicle, so where possible, I prefer to shoot from an open car window.

San Simeon Zebra Family

Heat Distortion in Photos

I shot the two images below earlier in the day, of a herd farther in the distance. My partner and I stood below at the roadside, and you can see how much the distance changes the clarity because of the rising heat waves between my lens and the herd, creating some optical distortion. I couldn’t get a sharp image because of that atmospheric interference. The distance and telephoto tend to magnify that effect. The utility wires at that spot also marred the shots.

Another couple stopped at the same location, getting a view of the zebra herd. We had an engaging conversation and it could very well be that because of this delay, our timing was perfect to find the second herd later on, at the ideal location. The castle setting behind the two zebras was pure, serendipitous loveliness — one of those moments you know you have to capture quickly before it fades again into the San Simeon golden hour.

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