See Elephant Seals in Santa Cruz on Hwy 1 in Winter
Most tourists riding between San Francisco and Big Sur on Highway One ride right by elephant seals who plop themselves onto the beaches above Santa Cruz, California. In the winter months, hundreds of females are there to give birth, the newborn pups are there to grow big and fat, and the males . . . well, they’re busy competing with each other for the chance to pass their genes onto the next round of babies born next winter. Just 25 miles north of Santa Cruz on Highway One, you can get off your bike for a short stroll to get a rare glimpse of these large and lumbering creatures.
Elephant seals get their name from the extended noses on adult males. In order to protect the elephant seals during this critical breeding season, park rangers require all visitors to be escorted by a naturalist-guide on a 2.5 hour tour. The $7 tickets sell out a few months in advance for weekend tours, but sometimes if you arrive early and place yourself on the “stand by” list you might be able to get in. Book your visit at Año Nuevo State Park. (See more photos on Kathy's blog.)
Our tour started with a pleasant 1.5 mile walk along the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In the distance was Año Nuevo Island, with a deteriorating lighthouse keeper’s residence, abandoned in 1948 and now inhabited by sea lions and birds. Elephant seals first arrived on Año Nuevo Island in 1955. Ten years later, they started moving over to the mainland beach, and the first seal pup was born here in 1975.
Historically, elephant seals did not establish a breeding colony here on the mainland due to predators, like grizzlies and mountain lions. Since Euro-American settlers killed all their predators -- eliminating grizzlies altogether, and decimating the mountain lion population -- elephant seals can now lounge on the beach all day without worry.
Those same European/Americans also hunted the elephant seal into near-extinction, as the blubber made excellent lamp oil. By the late 1800s, less than 100 elephant seals remained in the world, mostly on islands off the Baja Peninsula. After Mexico and the U.S. outlawed the hunting of elephant seals, the population gradually increased to about 300,000 today. Over the last couple of months, over 1600 pups have been born at Año Nuevo.
After giving birth, each mother lies on the beach for about a month, without eating or swimming, and nurses her baby with high-fat milk. The babies triple in size, while the mothers lose 1/3 of their body weight. Then the mothers swim away, leaving their roly-poly babies (now called “weaners”) to fend for themselves on the beach. The weaners then live off their body fat as they develop muscle strength and eventually learn how to swim on their own. Cresting the dunes above the beach, we saw lots of mothers, pups, and weaners sprawled about—so still that they resembled long smooth rocks.
The weaners were tucked here and there, including under bushes. While the weaners might look like they are “just sleeping,” they are actually in intense training. Adult elephant seals can stay under water for almost two hours, searching for food near the ocean floor. When the seals sleep, their bodies don’t breathe. So the act of “napping” is teaching the youngsters how to store oxygen in preparation for those long ocean dives.
Interspersed with the mothers and pups on the beach were much larger males, with their remarkable noses. The males moved about in spurts, carrying out their continual dances of hierarchy. Even though there is one “alpha male” here who claims all the females as his, he can’t be in all places at all times. Other males had a pecking order, with some lying in the midst of small pockets of females, and others totally on the outskirts. Every few minutes, one of the males would raise his head and bellow to threaten a lower ranking male who had gotten a little too close; if the vocal threats weren’t enough, there would be a charging of bodies, with one male backing down, usually pretty quickly.
During our time at Año Nuevo we learned some history. Did a little hiking. Breathed in the fresh sea air. Saw some animals that were so unusual they could have sprang from the pages of a comic book. And one of the best parts was that they were in our own coastal backyard--we didn't have to board a plane to have this incredible adventure!
Other Activities, Food, and Lodging
Most motorists zoom right by, but the area is worth a stop for more than the seal watching. In February and March the whales are usually passing by the bluffs about this time, too, you can even kayak out to see them. Stop at Davenport Roadhouse for a great lunch - there's also a B&B there if you're so inclined. Or the Costanoa luxury tent camping and lodge is nearby in quaint Pescadero, hot tubs included! (Hungry? Stop for yummy burgers at Pescadero Country Store.) Santa Cruz is a half-hour down the road, and if you're an amusement park buff, it's got a great one right on the beach. Check to see if the Beach Boys are playing on the boardwalk... they really do, sometimes!
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