This hike was an extra-special opportunity. To see the elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park during the December-March breeding season, it is necessary to sign up for a docent-led tour to the restricted-access portion of the Natural Preserve. As it turns out, one of my skating ladies group is a docent at Año Nuevo, and she had been able to reserve an after-hours tour slot for our group. So our tour took place in the late afternoon, and we were privileged to see a beautiful sunset as well as the elephant seals!
The trail from the Marine Education Center museum to the Nature Preserve Area Trailhead is open to the public (i.e., not yet in the restricted access area). Near the staging area there is a short trail out to a vista point. From here there is a great view of the beautiful shoreline of Año Nuevo Bay.
Only about a quarter of a mile inside the Preserve, one member of our group happened to notice a spider web backlit by the sun. Looking more closely, we saw that there were several – at least 4 in the picture – stretched out between branches of the shrub.
Almost immediately we were excited to have our first elephant seal sighting: a male right at the shoreline catching a few gentle waves.
As we continued walking toward Año Nuevo Point we had an almost continuous view of the shoreline and the mesmerizing waves. It was tempting to linger and enjoy this, but we were really there to see elephant seals.
We took a short loop slightly inland and saw a few more individual elephant seals near the trail. We could also hear sounds reminiscent of glugging drains, that our docent informed us were males doing some vocalizing. Shortly we climbed up a small sand dune, and suddenly there were hundreds of elephant seals before us on the beach!
The general impression was that all of the seals were just lying there, without doing anything or going anywhere. Indeed, according to our docent, a great deal of resting does take place while the seals are on land. They have swum some 2500 miles from their feeding grounds to come ashore here, where the females give birth and nurse pups and the adults mate for the next round. It takes a lot of energy for an elephant seal to move around on land, so they don’t move much. There is the occasional flick of sand, seen near the center of the above photo, to chase away insects or perhaps warn a persistent pup.
This group of females was quite close to our viewing location. I watched them off and on quite a bit, and happened to capture a picture as of one of them appeared to be scratching an itch. This lasted just a few seconds, and then all was quiet for many more minutes.
Pups nurse voraciously, growing from ~75 pounds at birth to ~250 pounds within a month. Virtually any time can be lunch time, and the females do not appear to awaken for this activity (note two nursing pups at the left of this picture).
If a pup gets separated from its mother, it can be a problem. This pup was moving around a group of females who seemed to be ignoring it, and our docent commented that the pup looked like it might be in trouble.
Only males have the distinctive noses that give elephant seals their name. People can estimate the age of a male by the size of his nose. Here are a couple of specimens.
Male elephant seals are large, weighing up to 5,000 pounds. They do not eat while they are on land, and any activities consume a lot of energy. Every so often one will suddenly lift his head, awkwardly hump forward perhaps a body length, and just as suddenly return to a fully prone position. This entire sequence lasts only a few seconds. Sometimes, with or without forward motion, the male will vocalize while his head is up.
Because our tour slot was after regular hours, we were fortunate to be able to continue watching the elephant seals as the sun went down. This sequence of pictures was taken over a span of about 12 minutes, during which we started walking back to the trailhead.
About a half mile offshore is Año Nuevo Island, which housed a lighthouse station and lighthouse from about 1872 to 1948. Since then the former keeper’s residence has been maintained in a state of “arrested decay,” according to the Park’s information pamphlet.
This was a wonderful walking tour with beautiful weather and good friends. The elephant seals were amazing, and it was a fascinating opportunity to observe them from a relatively close vantage point.