Ano Nuevo State Park, on the coast about an hour south of San Francisco, is an impressive breeding ground for the HUGE Northern Elephant Seal. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523
The seals come ashore from December to March to have their babies, then mate for the next year’s offspring.
Once upon a time, about a century ago, these massive mammals were nearly hunted to extinction. They provided the same commercial products (meat and blubber) as did whales, but they were MUCH easier to hunt while laying on the beach.
In 1922, fewer than 100 of these huge creatures remained. The remaining small colony, on Mexico’s Guadalupe Island, was protected by the Mexican government and have since repopulated the Pacific Coast. The current population of 160,000 animals are all descended from the 100 that were saved. http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animal-guide/marine-mammals/northern-elephant-seal
This particular breeding colony consists of a few mainland beaches, plus an offshore island, which was an active lighthouse station until the 1940′s.
During the ~4 months they are ashore, there are daily tours to safely view these massive creatures, without disturbing them. (It’s about 2.5 hours and 4 miles of walking, both on firm trails and soft beach dunes. Reservations necessary! Plan way ahead for weekend visits http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=27613)
The parking lot and tour starts from the old ranch buildings of the Steele family.
From the old ranch, it’s about a mile on a hard-packed trail, past a freshwater pond.
..and on to a small outdoor display, restrooms, and the start of the restricted area. (Note the iPhone, below, as a size reference)
Yes. they’re cute 200-300 pound babies at only 2 months old! (They weigh ~60 pounds at birth)
There’s a bunch of them scattered around these dunes, including about 10 in the foreground, behind the twigs.
In early March, when I visited, some of them had already headed back out to sea for the next 8 months. They are known to swim and feed off the Aleutian Islands, Siberia, and Japan, and can dive as deep as 5000 feet (~1500 meters)
This particularly large male, hanging out in the sun, like they all were, has in interesting history. Several years ago it came ashore with a toilet seat firmly stuck around it’s neck. It had been there quite some time. He was anesthetized and the toilet seat was cut off. The deep gouge in his neck, on the left, is still quite evident,though he’s apparently quite healthy.
After observing the massive, slumbering animals from several vantage points, it was time to head back. This sign (below) was pointed out to us to show how much the dunes shift over time. This sign was 4 feet tall a few years ago!
…and back towards the parking lot and the former Steele Ranch (white barn in the distance)
That’s it! A great drive and a 2.5 hour walk. Make a reservation some day! (Our docent, who has been working there for 17 years, recommends late January as the best time.)
GPX Track (download link at lower-right): http://www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=2695417