The central California coast is known for its rugged beauty, but it is also home to a very rare animal.
The Northern Elephant Seal has claimed as its own, a section of beach just north of San Simeon, California. The only other places you can find this special animal are the remote Mexican island of Ano Nuevo or spotting one in the open ocean.
These are true seals in that they lack exterior ears and articulated rear flippers, yet they outsize their smaller cousins by hundreds of pounds. Males might reach 5000 pounds and 15 feet in length while the females go up to 1800 pounds and 12 feet. They got the name Elephant Seal from the oversize proboscis or snout the males develop at maturity.
They haul out (come ashore) at Piedras Blancas, (Spanish for White Rocks) on the central California coast, right off of highway 1. These guano covered landmarks sitting offshore opposite the viewing beaches easily identify the area for people approaching on the coast highway. During the latter part of November and early December the large males will be coming back to these beaches and it is a sight to see.
Bulls claiming territory
They will begin jockeying for the position of alpha male by bumping chests, bellowing challenges that sound like a rusty foghorn and escalating into full blown brawls, for the dominant males are the only ones that will get to mate with the females during the breeding season that runs December through mid March. While serious injuries are rare in these confrontations, they do sometimes get bloody. The biggest, baddest male on the beach will get his own harem.
During this time the beach could be covered with thousands of these creatures that from a distance resemble large stacks of driftwood. Their brown and gray coloring blends in perfectly with the surrounding sand dunes.
These fascinating animals spend most of their lives in the water, with males at sea about eight months a year and 10 months for the females. They travel as far north as Alaska to feed and can dive up to 2000 feet in search of rays, skates, squid and other small fish. They usually dive for about 20 minutes at a time but have been recorded to be under for a half-hour at depths reaching 5000 feet.
Their natural enemies are white sharks and killer whales, and both of these predators take a heavy toll each year. It is common to see missing flippers or large gashes in a seal's side and even scars from boat propellers.
With so much time at sea, it is no wonder they like to take it easy when they finally haul out onto shore. During this time they might seem as listless as the driftwood they resemble, sleeping most of the time.
They can be so lazy it is a common for them to crawl over each other rather than move. This can be a real problem for newborn pups and many are crushed to death while on the beach. If it is hot, they will spend most of the day tossing sand onto their backs with their flippers to keep from getting a sunburn.
Sleeping Elephant seal pup
Females begin to mate three weeks after giving birth and have an 11-month gestation period with new pups hitting the beaches in numbers by mid January. Females usually have only one pup a year and nurse them for only four weeks. During the 2004-2005 breeding season, over 2000 new pups were counted on these beaches, a new birth record so this winter should be full of young males coming back to look for a girlfriend.
Not only are their numbers increasing but the size of the haul out area is also. These animals may be getting tired of the constant scrutiny they face with their primary residence being only yards off the coast highway. While they do still come ashore onto the monitored beach, they have also been spreading out both north and south in increasing numbers. They seem to have a keen sense of exactly where people can and cannot go and recently have been gathering by the dozens several hundreds of yards past their normal boundaries. This puts them squarely behind numerous sand dunes where they cannot be harassed by photographers.
To get to these new areas one must cross private land owned by the Hearst Corporation. I tried to get permission to do this and was denied. The alternative is to cross the State Beach property of the original viewing area. While it is not illegal to do this, it is illegal, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to harass these animals in any way. This means if a person steps onto the beach and even one animal bolts for the water, that person is subject to a very heavy fine.
Park rangers and volunteer naturalists monitor this activity, but it is a catch 22 proposition. It is not illegal to enter the beach area but if one person does so, then others will follow and soon there will be chaos and no animals. It is highly discouraged to step onto the beach and I did so only under the knowledge of the local ranger knowing I was there. I also kept my distance and did not cause any seal to leave its resting place.
Mugging for the camera
As a trained naturalist, I am highly aware of these situations and feel it part of my duty to safeguard these animals, but it is becoming an increasingly difficult job for the local people to monitor. Recently the rangers told me a photographer from a major magazine ventured onto the beach alone and was severely bitten by a cow. While he got his photographs, he also received several stitches and a severe fine.
December is the time to see the largest and most impressive of these seals. Piedras Blancas is part of the Point Reyes National Seashore and there are designated viewing beaches roped off for the monitoring and enjoyment of these animals. The viewing area sits on a low bluff only yards from the seals and you can look right down on them. During this time of year, docents in blue coats are easily identifiable and are on hand daily to give information.
How to get there
Piedras Blancas is about 12 miles north of the coastal town of Cambria on California's highway one. It is about two miles south of the old Point Reyes lighthouse. It is 4,1/2 miles north of the Hearst Castle at San Simeon and about 190 miles south of Monterey. This is a remote area of California's Coast highway. From Highway one you must look for the large white rocks offshore to know you are there. The only sign is for a vista point and there are many in the area.