A visit to Año Nuevo State Park along California’s central coast is a must for active families.

Seals can be seen at Año Nuevo throughout the year, but in the wintertime, the beaches are packed as males battle for mates and females give birth to pups. The size of this gathering makes it one of the largest mainland breeding colonies for northern elephant seals in the world. What makes this place especially fun is that visitors can get up-close with these amazing creatures.

Elephant seals are curious to behold; at first glance, they look like giant sausages on the beach, when they move it is similar to the way Jello moves when giggled. The males have large elephantine-like noses which give the seals their name. Some of the males are huge – they can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and be 15 feet in length! If you are curious how heavy 5,000 pounds are, it is roughly the same weight as 16 football linebackers! These giant seals might look slow moving but when provoked these undulating masses of blubber can move a speedy 25 feet in several seconds.

Possibly the most unusual feature about elephant seals are their bellowing vocalizations. At best, it sounds like a deep guttural burp mixed with low-frequency popping noises. You can hear moms, pups, and males here.

The seals spend much of their life at sea traveling great distances, sometimes swimming an astounding 5,000 miles before resting on land.

The elephant seals were once thought to be extinct. The seals have a lot of fat on their bodies, and at one time their fat was a hot commodity as a fuel source for oil lamps. In the 1800s as whale populations diminished from over hunting a new source of prevalent, easy-to-obtain oil was sought. The large, slow-moving (slow at least on land) elephant seals were an easy harvest. Their population soon plummeted and the seals were thought to be extinct on the California coast. Fortunately, a small group survived in Mexico; this population, thought to be less than 100 individuals, was eventually protected and their population slowly grew.

In the winter months, primarily in January and February, the males battle for control of harems and mating rights. When two males challenge each other they loudly slam their massive bodies into one another sometimes raking teeth across their opponent’s body. It is common to see males with bloody scars and lacerations on their heads and fronts.

During December through March, access to the breeding area is only available through guided walks. These docent-led groups consist of 10 to 20 people and are led every quarter hour. You can easily make reservations online. On the day of your appointment check in at the visitor center to confirm your arrival. Then make your way to the staging area, which is about a three-quarter mile walk. At the staging area, you will be introduced to a docent who will guide you into the protected breeding area. This walk takes about an hour and a half. Afterward, enjoy a walk back to the visitor center, or explore a nearby beach and trails.

The docent lead tours are held rain or shine. Bring layered clothes, a sun hat (or rain gear) and plenty of water.

Año Nuevo is located a 45 minutes drive south of Half Moon Bay, California.

To learn more and make reservations:
http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=523

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