The Elephant Seals of Año Nuevo: A Conservation Success Story and Unique Wildlife Encounter in Northern California

IMG_9383In the early 1920s, elephant seals numbered in only the double digits after being hunted to the brink of extinction for their blubber that was used to make oil. Today, the elephant seal is a conservation success story.

With a healthy population of approximately 150,000 along the Pacific coast from Baja California, Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, they are no longer an endangered species. They are protected, however, and there’s no better place to observe this magnificent creature than Año Nuevo State Park, where elephant seals have been coming to mate, give birth, and take a break from their long ocean migrations every year since 1965. The natural preserve is about an hour and half south of San Francisco, along scenic Highway 1 between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz.
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My daughter and I went to visit the seals in early March, joining a guided walk required of all guests wishing to see the pinnipeds in action during their breeding season from December to late March. During this period, the elephant seals come ashore after their long food pilgrimages in the Pacific.
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The Breeding Cycle of the Elephant Seal
It’s fascinating to observe nature in action as the males, with their long, pendulous noses, vie for the top rung of the social ladder. The bulls arrive in November – ahead of the ladies – all two and a half, hot-and-bothered tons of them, impatiently waiting for the smaller females to make an appearance, which happens sometime in December. They engage in fierce battles for dominance, and the winners gain not only the coveted “alpha male” status, but the right to mate with the soon-to-be-arriving females.
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After months of feasting in the deep waters of the Pacific, the females come ashore to form harems on the beaches. Within the first week, they give birth to the pups conceived in the previous year. One pup is born to each female and nurses for an average of 28 days. Shortly after (and even before the pup is weaned), the mother mates again, conceiving another baby that she’ll have the following year.

Depending on when you go to Año Nuevo, you’ll observe different phases of this breeding cycle. Our visit in early March was at the end of the season, and both males and females had already started hauling out, so the majority of seals lounging on the wind-swept beaches and dunes were babies who had recently been weaned – the so-called “weaners.” If you go earlier in the season, you’re more likely to catch fierce bull fights and “romantic” trysts.
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Making Reservations for a Guided Walking Tour
Because this unique wild life encounter is so popular, getting a reservation for a guided walk is almost as tough as snagging a ticket to the Super Bowl. Ok, not really, but you will need to book early. Reservations can be made starting on October 20 each year as early as 56 days and up to one day before your desired visit. Here’s the trick – choose a date when you want to go, count back 56 days to determine the first day you’re eligible to make a reservation, and then that morning call 1-800-444-4445 or go online at http://anonuevo.reserveamerica.com to make your reservation. This is especially important for weekend dates as they book up very fast! Weekdays have much wider availability, so you’re usually pretty safe booking those closer to your visit.

The walks are given by volunteer naturalists and are available from December 15 to March 31 in order to minimize disturbance to the animals and their natural habitat. Because elephant seals are unpredictable and wild (and thus, dangerous), you’ll need to stay with the guide at all times and will remain at least 25-feet back from the seals (hint: bring a telephoto lens if you want great close-up shots.) Tours last 2-1/2 hours, covering about three miles through the dunes, and the weather is almost always blustery and on the cold side (hint: wear a wind breaker, layers.)
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One thing I didn’t realize is that there are a small number of seals at Año Nuevo all throughout the year. Between April and November, females, juveniles, and the “loser” males who didn’t achieve alpha status during the breeding season, come back to molt, or shed their fur and whiskers. Other younger seals haul ashore in the fall.

During the April through November timeframe, the park requires visitors to obtain hiking permits to enter the restricted areas at Año Nuevo Point. From December 1-14, the restricted area is closed to allow pregnant females undisturbed beach access. How’s that for special treatment? In this case, special treatment has saved elephant seals from extinction, allowed their populations to multiply, and given us the opportunity to enjoy a distinctive wildlife experience.
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