Walk Among the Bellowing Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park

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

Nose to Nose with the Elephant Seals of Año Nuevo

In the mid-1800s Elephant Seals were hunted for their oily blubber to light the lamps of San Francisco. But, within a few short decades, they were gone and thought to be extinct. Thanks to modern protections a small population has returned from the edge of extinction to reclaim their former territory on the California coast. In the wintertime at Año Nuevo hundreds of seals, from newborns, pregnant females and gigantic males congregate and we get to see them up close.

The seals gain their name from the elephantine noses possessed by the males.

The walking trips to see the seals are no more than 2 miles in length and about 1.5 to 2 hours in duration. Much of the terrain is loose sand. The hike begins with a thirty-minute walk from the Visitor’s Center to the tour staging area. Last chance latrine facilities are available. Here we will be joined by a docent who will guide us into the Wildlife Protection Area. Remember, bulls can move 20 feet, even in loose sand, in 2.5 seconds! You are requested to stay at least 40 feet away from the seals at all times.

Meet at the Sanborn Park Hostel on Sunday, January 10, BY 9 a.m. to determine carpool arrangements. Reservations are required. The fee is $10.00 per person, children under 3 are free. Parking is available at the reserve on a per vehicle ($5) basis and must be paid at the entrance station. Picnic tables are located near the Visitor’s Center for lunch.

Año Nuevo is roughly an hour and fifteen-minute drive (55 miles) from the hostel. After visiting the reserve, weather permitting, we will continue north along Hwy 1 to explore the wildlife areas and tidepools between Pigeon Point Lighthouse and Montara. Plan to eat before entering the reserve as we will be hiking during lunch time. Picnic tables are available near the Visitors Center.

The trip goes rain or shine. Recommended equipment/gear for this trip: rain jacket/clothes, headband/ear band, camera, comfortable sports or hiking shoes, a second pair of shoes to keep in the car for return, lunch, day pack with water. Wear layered clothes and come prepared for any kind of weather. Please note the reserve does not allow pets, smoking, food, gum chewing or umbrellas in the wildlife protection area.

Organization: Sanborn Park Hostel
Trip Rating: Easy
Date: January 10, 1999
Trip Leader: Mark Hougardy
Participants: 14

A Weekend of Redwoods, Elephant Seals and Sanborn

The summer at Sanborn provides opportunities to meet others from distant lands and explore the abundant areas around the hostel. On Saturday morning we depart for Ano Nuevo State Reserve to hike among the dunes and view the massive bull Elephant Seals. Some bulls can be up to 16 feet in length! The afternoon will be spent beachcombing and exploring the coastline. In the evening we return to Sanborn Park Hostel for grilling your favorite food on the bbq, meeting new folks, sitting around the fire, watching deer in a nearby field, and telling stories. Creative thoughts and those young at heart are welcome. We overnight at the hostel. On Sunday, we head to Big Basin Redwoods State Park to hike the 10 mile Berry Creek Falls Loop. This loop includes the remarkable Golden Falls, Silver Falls and the 65 foot Berry Creek Falls. All trips depart from the hostel at 9:00 am. Overnight reservations recommend fee per person is $8.50.

Organization: Sanborn Park Hostel
Date: Saturday-Sunday, 11-12 June 1999
Trip leader: Mark Hougardy
Participants: 12