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Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park

Sex on the Beach in California

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Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park

Male Elephant Seal

© Betsy Malloy 2001
  • Hours: Tours are given daily from December through March
  • Cost: There is a modest fee for the tour and also a parking fee
  • Location: Between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, directions below
  • How Long: The tour lasts about 2.5 hours
  • Best Time to Visit: January and February are the best months to see the action, but also the time when weather tends to be the worst. Go too early and you'll see only the males coming ashore. go too late and you'll find the young sea lions but no adults.
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Every winter, thousands of northern elephant seals gather. Females arrive, giving birth to their babies and shortly afterward, males start fighting to mate with them. The orgy of birthing, mating and fighting last for three months.

It's a spectacle that's unlike any other, and every year celebrates the northern elephant seal's return from the brink of extinction, coming back from a low in 1892, when less than 100 individuals remained. Today, there are more than 150,000 elephant seals in the wild and many of them come to Ano Nuevo every year, making it the site of the largest mainland breeding colony of the northern elephant seal.

Because the colony is easily accessible via a short hike across the sand dunes, visitors are treated to an extraordinary opportunity to see the breeding colony up close. Tours are guided by volunteer naturalists, who explain the goings-on and keep the elephants seals and humans safe from each other.

A typical tour starts with a 25-minute walk from the park headquarters to a staging area where the naturalists meet their groups. The group makes their way across the sand dunes to the breeding area. The path varies daily depending on animal activities, but lucky visitors may witness the birth of a pup or a battle between two males. The 2.5-ton males make bellowing call that sounds like a "motorcycle in a drain pipe" as docents like to say, and most of the fights are mere skirmishes, but exciting nevertheless.

Practicalities

  • The only way to see the seals during breeding season is on a guided tour. Spaces on the tour must be reserved in advance, with reservations for individuals opening in mid to late October. Call 800-444-4445 or learn how to make California state park reservations online.

  • No food or beverages (except bottled water) are allowed on the tour, and no refreshments are available at the park, so eat before you go or take a picnic with you.

  • Pets are not allowed in the park and umbrellas are not allowed on the walk.

  • The walk is about 3 miles long, moderately strenuous, and the path to the viewing area is not suitable for those with mobility impairments. However, the park can accommodate people with special needs on a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk with advance special reservations.

Elephant Seal Life Cycle

Elephant seals spend most of their life at sea, but starting in late December, individuals begin to come on shore one by one.

Males arrive first. Fourteen to sixteen feet long and weighing up to 2.5 tons, they engage in small skirmishes and violent battles to establish dominance and for the right to settle in the center of the harem and mate with all its females.

Females bear a single, 75-pound pup 3 to 6 days after they come on shore, then they gather in large harems. They nurse their young for 28 days, mate and then abandon the pups (who now weigh up to 350 pounds) to return to the sea. By March, most of the adults are gone and the pups somehow learn how to swim, find food and survive on their own.

Most animals shed hair year-around, but elephant seals do it abruptly, returning to the shore during spring and summer to molt. The rest of the year they are at sea, where they spend up to 90% of their time under water, diving for 20 minutes at a time to a depth of 2,000 feet searching for food.

Where is Ano Nuevo State Park Located?

Ano Nuevo State Park
650-879-0227 (info)
800-444-4445 (reservations
Website
Ano Nuevo is located just off CA Hwy 1, 20 miles north of Santa Cruz and 27 miles south of Half Moon Bay. Depending on where you're coming from, you can take any major highway west to CA Hwy 1. The park is well marked and between the highway and the ocean.

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In order from north to south:

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