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Savoring the noisy spectacle of elephant seal breeding season in California’s Año Nuevo State Park

Northern elephant seals, seen at Año Nuevo State Park in California. (iStock)
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For dudes looking for female company, the prospects are good at Año Nuevo — the scenic spot on the Northern California coast is home to plenty of eligible companions. Of course, it helps if you’re a 5,000-pound male northern elephant seal with a two-foot-long nose and a chest thick with blubber.

Having none of these qualities and on hand to observe rather than participate, I hung back at a safe distance and let the natural spectacle unfold at Año Nuevo State Park, about an hour south of San Francisco.

I had joined a group of nine other visitors for a guided hike that offers a close-up encounter with one of the world’s largest seals, the northern elephant seal — an enormous, blubbery creature with dark eyes and long whiskers — as well as a way to experience a rare wildlife conservation success story in this age of extinction.

“This is the best time of day for elephant seals, when the temperature cools down and the action heats up,” our guide, Sarah, assured us as we headed out on the last tour of the day and into a protected part of the park. She led us along a grassy cliff top, then onto a sandy path worn smooth in patches, as if someone had dragged the flat side of a shovel across it. Meanwhile, a pulsating roar echoed in the distance, along with seal barks and the sharp cries of seabirds.

“You sure you want to go ahead?” a ranger asked us. She pointed to the underbrush. Sure enough, an indolent elephant seal was sprawled on the path, having used his flippers to drag himself to a secluded spot, wearing the sand smooth as he went.

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We all agreed that we wanted to continue off-trail and see what the noisy excitement on the beach was about — the guttural grunts, barks and bird calls. The ranger had posted a detour for us through the maze of shrubs and plants, and we hiked through to Bight Beach.

Ahead of us, the sapphire-blue Pacific Ocean stretched to the horizon. On shore, a group of females, officially known as a harem, was clustered; one flipped sand onto her body to keep cool. In the surf, two males squared off and bumped chests, perhaps practicing sparring. One blew threats at the other through his prodigious proboscis, and they separated and splashed back into the water.

“That’s so cool,” said a young member of our group.

Also cool were the two male stragglers lying a few feet apart in the wet sand just behind Bight Beach. We were close enough to see their slate-gray skin, crisscrossed with white scars from fights and from the sharks that lurk offshore. One of the elephant seals slowly lifted his head and unleashed a belch through his inflated nose — a rumbling, rattling noise, like the chugging of a generator.

I learned from Sarah that the noise is not for our benefit; rather, it’s directed at the other nearby elephant seals. The males each have distinct calls, and the vocalizations are the equivalent of a person saying their own name repeatedly. Each breeding season, males use these calls to identify each other.

By now, we had threaded through the dunes and, having dodged a few scattered elephant seals along the way, we reached Año Nuevo Point.

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Ahead of us, a small triangle of land curved into the ocean. Just offshore, silhouetted by the setting sun, Año Nuevo Island and its long-abandoned light station were visible. The point’s name, which means new year, was bestowed by a Spanish priest in a passing ship in 1603. Though the light station is now the only visible sign of human habitation, the land was home to the Quiroste people for thousands of years. The Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve, across the road from the park, is now working to restore the local landscape.

On the shore, hundreds of elephant seals had gathered in the sun for a sort of pinniped beach party. In the rookery, jet-black newborn pups wriggled close to their mothers. Elsewhere, harems huddled together while beachmasters (dominant males) patrolled the perimeter. One pregnant elephant seal slid away to be on her own, possibly to give birth. Closer to us, smaller beta bulls lower in the elephant seal hierarchy but still hoping for a shot at breeding lolled on the edges of the harems. On the beach, two alpha males tussled, one using his chest and large, trunklike nose (hence the name elephant seal) to push away a rival, while adding a final rumbling growl to intimidate — or maybe just taunt — the loser.

“Welcome to B&B season: birthing and breeding,” Sarah said of the scene. “It’s their Super Bowl.”

Although elephant seals can be found at Año Nuevo all year, the big event takes place between December and March. Males arrive near the end of November, followed soon after by pregnant females. Both groups have migrated thousands of miles, the males spending most of the year close to the coast, and the females heading out to the deep ocean. Along the way, they have made epic dives to fatten up on seafood and add layers of blubber to prepare for their time on land without food.

After they reach Año Nuevo, the males spend the winter battling for mating privileges and status, while the females give birth and nurture their young. After a month of nursing their pups — who triple in weight thanks to elephant seal milk, which can be up to 55 percent fat — the moms head back to the Pacific, while the pups stay until early spring learning to swim, dive and navigate the sharks waiting in the water.

The first time a northern elephant seal was known to be born here was only about 50 years ago. Before that, northern elephant seals nearly disappeared entirely because of hunting during the 19th century for their blubber, which was used for lamp oil and soap. However, a small group of elephant seals was discovered during an 1892 Smithsonian Institution expedition on an island off Baja California in Mexico. From there, this hardy band of survivors slowly repopulated and spread out, helped by legal protections from the Mexican and U.S. governments. Today, there are thought to be more than 200,000 northern elephant seals in the wild.

“They are champion battlers … and breeders,” Sarah said. With the sun now sliding low on the horizon and casting long shadows across the sand, she asked us to take our final photos before heading back.

We trekked through the tall dunes once again, passing a rabbit, a few deer and a turkey vulture as we go. In the water in the distance, a sea otter floats in the kelp. Before we’d gone too far, I realized I have left my camera bag behind and briefly turned back.

As I did, I saw what looked like a rubbery boulder. I moved closer and nearly stumbled on one last elephant seal, resting in the shade. The young male ignored me entirely and instead stretched out in a puddle, with what could have been a small smile on his face, waiting for his moment in the sun.

Biggar is a writer based in the District. His website is hughbiggar.com. Find him on Instagram (@hughbiggar) and Twitter (@BiggHugh).

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If You Go

Where to stay

HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel

210 Pigeon Point Rd., Pescadero, Calif.

650-879-0633

bit.ly/pigeon-point

This hostel comes with ocean views and beaches and is a 10-minute drive or 30-minute bike ride north of Año Nuevo on picturesque Highway 1. It’s at the foot of one of the tallest lighthouses on the West Coast and is located in Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park. Because of the pandemic, rooms are not available until June. Through May, vacation houses are available for $500 a night and require a minimum two-night stay.

What to do

Año Nuevo State Park

1 New Years Creek Rd., Pescadero, Calif.

650-879-2025

parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523

Located on Highway 1 between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, Año Nuevo State Park is home to one of the world’s largest rookeries for northern elephant seals. Elephant seals can be seen year-round at the park following seasonal cycles of mating, birthing and molting. December through March is the peak viewing season, because the seals gather to give birth and breed. Guided tours of the restricted viewing areas are available during this season; advance reservations recommended. The park is also home to an abundance of wildlife, walking trails, beaches and a marine education center; migrating gray whales also pass by. Open daily 8:30 a.m. to sunset. Entry $10 per vehicle or $9 for seniors 62 and older; guided tours $7 per person, plus $3.99 reservation fee.

Information

visitcalifornia.com


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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