When being “fat and ugly” is an advantage—the elephant seals of Año Nuevo State Reserve.
They say it’s bad luck to cancel the first field trip of the year, therefore, with no way out, our group drove to Año Nuevo in the face of threatening winter storms. The four camera club members who took the hour-and-a-half drive to the San Mateo coast were rewarded richly with near-perfect seal viewing conditions. (Seals are more animated in cold weather and don’t tend to lie about as much as when the sun is hot.)
Fortunately for us, the “sucker hole” in the storm system lasted most of the day and we were only faced with occasional spells of drizzle and moderate winds.
Winds of good fortune were also blowing on our little band of plastic-wrapped photogs—we managed to get four tickets for the second tour of the day! Apparently the threatening weather scared off just enough of the prepaid ticket holders and in classic baseball-stadium-scalper style we easily procured the needed passes.
Año Nuevo juts out from the San Mateo County coastline and is home to the largest breeding colony of Northern elephant seals in the world. If you’ve ever seen an elephant seal, you’d never forget what they look like—especially the males. Two blunt words suffice when describing the male elephant seal: fat and ugly. The species gets its name from the male’s large proboscis, which resembles an elephant’s trunk. A fully developed trunk takes seven to nine years to grow—and the lady seals won’t take a male seriously until he can sport a full trunk. Furthermore, if your seal body is too thin, then you can’t even qualify for your right to mate—you become a “beta male” or worse. In elephant seal society gluttony is a virtue!
This time of year is when the big males are currently battling it out for mating supremacy. December and January are the peak months for seal mating, so now is the best time to go see the big, battle-bloodied males facing off for control over a finite number of harems. Incidentally, most of the males lose out and have to return to the open ocean to gorge themselves on fish and fill in their subcutaneous layer of blubber for another crack at mating during a subsequent season. Life is certainly not a cakewalk for the male elephant seal—especially the 980-pound weaklings.
After mating the males leave the beach and the females give birth and tend to their suckling pups. Once the pups are weaned the mothers can return to the sea. (Most of the adults are gone by March.) By May most of the “weaners” leave the beach to feed. The seals return to the beaches from March through July to molt (to shed their fur). In the summer the beach is generally empty, but there are seals present year round. July through early November is probably the worst time of the year to visit the seals.
Our group saw a few examples of aggressive male behavior, but our guide kept us far from the bulls, so we had to rely heavily upon our long telephoto lenses. The park restricts access to the beach where the seals congregate during times of peak activity. Groups are required to go out with docents to prevent the aggressive male seals from mixing it up with the tourists. Park rangers also want to make sure that humans do not tease the animals—there are state and federal laws that make that a crime. Tours are conducted this season from December through the end of March. To guarantee your place on those tours you almost have to have a prepaid reservation about six months in advance. Spontaneous visitors, however, can get on a waiting list and hope for no-shows, but during good weather the non-refundable tickets are almost as scarce as available harems.
The elephant seal is an incredible animal. The largest known bull was measured at18 feet long (about the length of two cars) and weighed an estimated 6,000 pounds (the equivalent of two trucks). The elephant seal is the largest pinniped in the world—even bigger than the walrus. Elephant seal males mate with up to 50 females. (It takes a lot of seal-relations skills to look after a harem of 50!) Elephant seals are pelagic, spending 80 to 90 percent of their time underwater. They also migrate further than any other mammal in the world, more than 6,000 miles; usually up to the waters off the Aleutian Islands. They are also the deepest diving mammals in the sea, having been tracked to depths of 5,015 feet—almost a mile beneath the surface. They are able to hold their breath for up to 80 minutes—another record for mammals. They feed mainly on squid, but also eat rays, skates, small sharks and Pacific hake. They spend most of their time alone and are solitary hunters.
This amazing animal was almost hunted into extinction in the late 1800s—the population dwindled to 100. With strict management, however, the estimated elephant seal population is now up to 130,000. There is another large breeding colony of Northern Elephant Seals on a beach near San Simeon (close to the Hearst Castle). The seals can only breed on broad, gently sloping, sandy beaches.
Año Nuevo is located about midway between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay on Highway 1. It is a scenic, 4,000-acre reserve, run by the California State Parks System, with a well-stocked gift shop and a helpful, knowledgeable staff. Restrooms, water and picnic tables are available only at the visitors’ center. Guided seal tours are held every day from mid-December through the end of March, and the walks take about two hours and require a hike of about three miles round trip. The daily seal tours begin at 9 a.m. and the last walk is in mid-afternoon.
Seal walks cost $5 per person and can be booked at the visitors’ center or well in advance by calling 1-800-444-4445. San Mateo County Transit offers weekend and Monday holiday service from mid-January through February that includes transportation and a public seal walk at $13 per person. The individual entry fee for the reserve is $6 per car.
Año Nuevo point was named on January 3 of 1603 when Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino spotted it from a ship; the expedition diarist and chaplain named it Punta Año Nuevo for the New Year of 1603. A small island at the tip of the point was the site of a light station, but it was de-commissioned in 1920 and the old buildings and the wreck of the collapsed metal light tower await erasure by the waves and the weather.
Our experience was well worth the hassle and we were treated to a very good seal show. This particular morning the tide was the highest it had been in a long time, the Pacific Ocean angrily beat against the jagged cliffs and we got in some good surf shooting at a nearby beach before the Año Nuevo gates opened.
Afterward we drove to the nearby village of Pescadero and had a nice lunch at the only restaurant in town. The menu includes Chiopino and various other specialties. We particularly enjoyed the cream of artichoke soup and the good selection of beers on tap.
After lunch Dave and I drove up to Butano State Park and were treated to an hour or two in an enchanted redwood rain forest. Everything was brilliant green—ferns, mosses and tree needles—because of the recent wet weather. All the streams were running and numerous varieties of fungus were pushing their way through the debris of the forest floor. If you like forests and trees, then you better put Butano on your list of places to visit!
For those who missed this trip… What can I say? You should have joined Sponge Bob and the rest of us, because it turned out to be a marvelous day!
© 2005 S.R. Hinrichs