Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip

Field Trip: Aņo Nuevo State Reserve
Trip Date: January 17, 2009
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: January 19, 2009

Four persons attended the rescheduled Saturday, January 17 field trip to Aņo Nuevo State Reserve on the San Mateo County Coast. And two or three persons took the seal tour the weekend before. Both groups got what they came for - some nice elephant seal action.

Our guide provided us with some very interesting information: The elephant seal is quite an extraordinary animal. In the nineteenth century these seals and whales were harvested for their oil because of the large amount of blubber both types of animals stored under their skin. The blubber was used for household oil for lamps and lubricants. By the 1890s the elephant seal was believed to have been extinct. A scientist found seven or eight of them out on a single island in Mexico and promptly shot four for museum specimens. By the 1930s the seals were strictly protected and their numbers have come back to a sustainable population. Their genetic diversity, however, is limited because the population was decimated to just a few animals - all the present elephant seals descended from that handful of remaining seals. The seals form colonies for breeding, but do not feed or migrate as part of a group - they are solitary animals while out in the open ocean. Scientists don't have all the puzzle pieces regarding elephant seal behavior, but with satellite and radio transponders, they are able to track the animals and get a better picture of their migration patterns. Elephant seals are probably the deepest divers of all sea mammals. They have been tracked to depths of greater than one mile. Elephant seals feed on squid and fish and do not feed while on land - while they breed they are utilizing their stored fat.

Aņo Nuevo is the largest breeding colony of Northern Elephant Seals on the California coast, actually the largest colony in the world. The seal count this past weekend was about 700, with a nice sampling of males, females, pups and "weaners." Our guide explained that the "weaners" are, of course, the fat juveniles who are bulking up on all the mother's milk they can suck down. Pups can sometimes pull off a scam and try to keep suckling. As long as the mother is receptive to it, the lucky weaner keeps bulking up until his free ride eventually ends. Seal milk has more than 50 percent fat content and most pups can triple their body weight during the nursing process. Sometimes a female looses a pup to predators, crushes her own pup or the pup dies of natural causes and a freelance weaner comes and takes over the former pup's position. The lucky weaner is then referred to as a "double-mother suckler" and becomes even fatter. (In elephant seal society, body fat translates to genetic selection and survival - the fattest, most aggressive bulls get the harems and the smaller bulls sit out the mating season on the sidelines.)

Taking a cue from the seals, after the tour we made like "weaners" and headed right over to Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero and fed on their specialty artichoke cream soup with piping hot bread and butter. Butta! We also treated ourselves to delicious linguica sandwiches, crab and avocado and pie and ice cream. After that pile of delicious food, I felt like a "super weaner!" I got in the car, drove back to Santa Clara County and beached myself for a couple of hours that afternoon. Our on-and-off-again field trip turned out to be a fun and interesting event.

You can still make it to Aņo Nuevo and see some good seal action. Parking is $7 per car and the seal tour is $7 per person. The wild mustard is now in bloom along the coast, so there are some spectacular views along Highway One this month.

© 2009 S.R. Hinrichs