Elephant seals: It’s baby-making time

Last January, I visited Año Nuevo State Park for a ranger-guided nature walk of the elephant seal rookery. Thousands of elephant seals were sprawled along the beaches of the park. The largest males frantically attempted to guard their massive harems, while outcast males, who had lost the earlier battle for territory, repeatedly tried to sneak in from the water’s edge.

View of the Año Nuevo State Park rookery

Just as the ranger explained that male elephant seals can grow to the size of a Suburban, he guided our group across a path that looked like it had been carved by the dragging of a very large, heavy sack. Just 20 feet away lay a basking, multi-ton male. Nonchalantly, the ranger ushered us up a steep dune, and from the top we could hear the barks and deep-throated howls of the elephant seals everywhere beneath.

Up the coast at Point Reyes National Seashore, another colony of elephant seals also returns each winter to breed. Año Nuevo and Point Reyes are the only large colony elephant seal rookeries in northern California. And before 1955, the rookery at Año Nuevo didn’t exist at all. That’s because 19th century settlers hunted the blubbery elephant seals to the edge of extinction for their hide oil. At one point, the entire elephant seal population dwindled as low as 50 individuals.

In 1922, Mexico was the first government to establish a protective status for the elephant seals. After several years, the United States followed suit. While the rookeries have largely recovered from their early 20th century state of non-existence, there have been serious consequences of the extensive over-hunting. Some rookeries suffer from clear evidence of genetic inbreeding. Largely, however, the elephant seals are an impressive story of how government policy and eco-conscious human behavior can positively impact our environment.

New pups and adult seals bask together on the beach

So if you want to see the elephant seals, now is the time to begin planning! The first seals will arrive at both Point Reyes and Año Nuevo in December. These individuals are pregnant females who come to the rookeries to give birth, which is why the early spring is such a popular tourist season. To see the elephant seals at Año Nuevo, you must purchase tickets well in advance (up to one month!).

Females usually give birth to a single 75-pound pup within a week of their arrival at the rookery. Pups are nursed for one month and in that short time, they can grow to over 300 pounds. Some extra-precocious pups nurse from multiple mothers, growing at twice the rate of the others. How is this growth rate possible? The mother elephant seal’s milk is 55% fat. (For comparison, human breast milk is approximately 5% fat.) Females go into heat before nursing ends, which means January is also a good time to see the impressive territorial demonstrations by the males.

So visit the Año Nuevo website to reserve a ranger-guided walk. If you would prefer to view  the elephant seals from a distance, then Point Reyes is the rookery for you. Either way, make sure you don’t miss this amazing experience!

Further reading on elephant seals:
Año Nuevo
Wikipedia
Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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