Hiking Inn to Inn
Hundreds of northern elephant seals line Año Nuevo Beach – babies crying, mothers snorting, giant males roaring and defending their territory. Mostly they are resting between birthing, nursing, mating and fighting, densely splayed along the sandy peninsula.
On a clear January morning, Ed, our volunteer guide, led us through sand dunes and thickets of willows. He directed us on a winding path, giving wide birth to scattered single males.
Cresting a dune, we starred in awe. Scores of the pinnipeds lay fifteen feet below us. Enormous males, 14-16 feet long, weighing two and a half tons, lay among their harems. Their large, pendulous proboscis resembles an elephant’s trunk and gives the species its name.
A male bachelor came too close, and the alpha bull reared and roared. He lumbered toward his opponent, and the offending bachelor quickly retreated. A mother cried, warning her pup to get out of the way to avoid being crushed.
Ed led us to another dune where a sandy peninsula stretched to the sea. We looked down on an incredible wildlife scene, one of the largest breeding colonies of elephant seals in the world.
When to Go
Winter is the best time to visit, from mid-December to early March. The males arrive in December, and bloody, violent fights for territory and dominance begin. The winners, alpha bulls, gather the arriving females into harems of around 50 but some up to 100. This is a rewarding but exhausting job. A male will live for around 14 years, but it is rare for an alpha bull to maintain his dominance for more than one year.
Within a few days of arrival, the females give birth to a single pup that weighs about 75 pounds. The pups nurse for less than a month and grow to 250-300 pounds! The females mate several times with the alpha bull. A bachelor might also sneak in for a quick mating.
A month after giving birth, the females abruptly leave, deserting their pups. By mid-march, almost all the adults have set out to sea. The pups stay at Año Nuevo for another month, molting, losing their black fur for a silver coat. They venture into the shallows to practice swimming and diving. By the end of April, they leave, heading out into the Pacific to hunt for food.
An Incredible History
Valued for their blubber, which was used to make lamp oil, the northern elephant seal was hunted to the brink of extinction. By the 1890s, only around 40 were known to still exist, breeding on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja. Mexico and the U.S. outlawed hunting the seals in the 1920s. Their recovery has been spectacular. Today, their estimated numbers have climbed to 124,000.
The first modern-day elephant seals arrived on Año Nuevo Island in 1955, and the first pup was born in 1961. Today, more than 3,000 come to the island and mainland annually.
Where do they go?
Leaving their breeding grounds, the males strike out on one of the longest migrations of any marine mammal, a 7,500 mile journey. Swimming north to Alaska and the Aleutians, they gorge on small sharks, octopus, skates, and eels. They return to Año Nuevo for a month between May and September to molt, shedding patches of fur and skin, for a new coat. Then they head back to sea to bulk up for the next mating season.
Females migrate off the continental shelf to the deep Pacific where they feed on fish and squid. Sharks, especially great whites, are the greatest threat, so they dive to depths the sharks cannot reach, sometimes more than a mile! They return to Año Nuevo to molt for a month between April and June.
Tours and Cost
During the prime season, from December 15 to March 31, visitors must join a naturalist-guided walk. They last two and a half hours and hike three miles. The cost is $7 plus a state park parking fee. For reservations, call 800-444-4445 or go to Anonuevo.reserveamerica.com.
Año Nuevo State Park is on Highway 1. Drive 35 miles south from Half Moon Bay or 20 miles north from Santa Cruz.