Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Aņo Nuevo State Reserve
Trip Date: January 2, 2010
Report Author:Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: January 29, 2010

We got our 2010 Field Trip season off to an early start on the morning of Saturday, January 2, as six club members and 2 associates came out to see the Elephant Seals at Aņo Nuevo State Reserve. This year's seal tour was very good despite the absence of most of the females on the beaches. The large males were waiting for their late return and wallowing about challenging each other. At this point, there were very few females and only a handful of new pups. By New Year's Day in previous years, the beaches were already crowded with seals. One of the supervising park rangers attributed the low numbers possibly to El Nino. The breeding season will be late this year, so there may be good seal viewing through February or March.

The Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga angustirostris) is one species that has an environmental success story to tell.

In order to mate, the seals must find gently sloping sand beaches that allow the animals to haul their ponderous masses out of the surf and high enough on a beach to avoid the tides from washing their small pups off the beach. The pups must first bulk up on their mothers' milk, learn to swim, hunt their own food learn about surviving in seal society before they can venture out on their own.

The species of this particular species was down to dangerously low numbers in the 1890s because they were hunted into near extinction. Their blubber was used for oil, much like the whale. In the late 1890s, seven seals were found on an island west of the present day Los Angeles metro area and the Smithsonian Institute dispached specimen collectors to come out and shoot four of the animals, so they could be put in the museum. Go figure!

It was generally accepted that this species had gone the route of the Dodo and the Passenger Pigeon-two species that had succumbed to the "dominance of mankind" mindset that was so prevalent a century ago. Fortunately, this kind of arrogance fell to more sensible conservation measures.

Apparently the species was protected by its solitary nature-staying most of the year out in the deep oceans and choosing remote beaches for breeding. The Mexican government also helped by protecting the species early in the twentieth century. Not a single seal was seen at Aņo Nuevo point until the decade of the 1950s. A solitary pup was born there in the early '60s-a stark contrast to the thousands of pups that are born every year on the island and mainland of the point.

As the seal population recovered, Aņother California Elephant Seal breeding beach was established near San Simeon within sight of the Hearst Castle. The numbers of seals coming to his fairly remote location has burgeoned over the last few years and the winter seal population may now exceed the numbers at Aņo Nuevo. There were no seals at the Piedras Blancas site prior to 1990 and now it is a well-known place to get good pictures of the animals. The species numbers is now estimated to be in excess of 100,000 individuals.

Our trips to Aņo Nuevo have always been fun and exciting, regardless of how many seals we see. And just about everyone in our group gets at lease one nice seal shot as a result.

© 2010 S.R. Hinrichs