The elephant seal breeding season has begun in earnest at Año Nuevo State Park, home since 1975 to the first mainland breeding colony of northern elephant seals in California.
A visit to Año Nuevo State Park during the peak of the elephant seal breeding season is always an amazing experience. Spread out across the beaches and among the dunes are hundreds of seals, including adult male elephant seals, adult females, pups, and assorted juveniles still too young to breed. The males, weighing more than 2 tons, challenge each other for access to females. The females can be seen giving birth and trying to protect and nurse their pups in the chaos of the beach. Seals also mate again after pups are weaned.
California State Park Supervising Ranger Terry Kiser reports that so far, by the end of December, 121 male elephant seals and 77 females had arrived on the Año Nuevo beaches. Already 18 elephant seal pups have been born, but this is just the beginning of the season. Last year 1,843 pups were born and weaned at the park.
Many visitors came to see the seals over the recent holiday season and the dry, mild weather has made for exceptional viewing, according to Kiser.
To accommodate the thousands of visitors during the winter breeding season, time viewing the seals is normally limited. This year, for one day only—Seal Adventure Saturday on January 28th—the number of visitors has been restricted and those who buy tickets for the occasion will be allowed to linger and observe the seals for a full morning (8:30-12:00) or full afternoon (1:00-4:30). This will be at the peak of the season, with a large number of seals and a lot of activity to be seen.
Supervising Ranger Kiser explained: “Seal Adventure Saturday is an event that California State Parks is putting on in conjunction with the San Mateo Coast Natural History Association (SMCNHA) with the intention of raising money to help fund the interpretation programs at Año Nuevo and other state parks on the San Mateo coast. This value-added event offers participants an opportunity to spend more time viewing the elephant seals, with far less constraints and fewer crowds.”
He added, “With the financial constraints that state parks are currently facing, we’re working with our partners, like SMCNHA, to help ensure the sustainability of our popular interpretive park programs, while also providing a fun and exciting day for event participants.”
You can visit the California State Parks website to learn more about the remarkable northern elephant seal, for example:
- Northern elephant seals were slaughtered wholesale in the 1800s for the oil that could be rendered from their blubber. By 1892, only 50 to 100 individuals were left—on an island off the coast of Baja California.
- In 1920s, the Mexican and U.S. governments gave elephant seals protected status and, since that time, they have multiplied exponentially and have extended their breeding range as far north as Point Reyes. Today, there are approximately 160,000 northern elephant seals.
- The first elephant seals on Año Nuevo Island were sighted in 1955, and the first pup was born there in 1961. Males began to haul out on the mainland in 1965. A pup born in January 1975 was the first known mainland birth of a northern elephant seal at Año Nuevo; 86 pups were born there in 1978.
The numbers continued to grow and state parks reports that the mainland herd has increased to more than 5,400 animals.
A KQED QUEST video offers a closeup view of the seals and a fascinating look at scientific research into their lives.