Elephant seals – Alpha or out

In my last post, I talked about the potential extinction of the amazing Monarch butterfly. Today, we are doing a full 180, visiting an animal that was at the brink of extinction in the 1900s, has since made a great comeback, and can weigh several tons: the northern elephant seal.

Some numbers

The northern elephant seal is the heavyweight amongst our seals. While female seals are on the smaller side, males come in around 5,000 pounds, and some massive alpha bulls have tipped the scale at a whopping 8,000 pounds and a length of 16 feet! And that weight came with a toll. In the 1800s and 1900s, these seals were hunted for their massive layers of blubber, which was used to produce gallons and gallons of oil. It is believed that the population was down to under 50 when the Mexican government followed by the US government finally decided to protect them. Today, their numbers have bounced back to somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 animals.

Sea elephant bull with battle scars, Año Nuevo rookery.

Mainland rookeries

Elephant seals spend 80% of their life at sea. They only come to land to give birth, breed, or molt. There are several rookeries along the California coast, where these colossal animals can safely be observed. Año Nuevo State Park, located between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay in San Mateo County, is the largest mainland colony. Other significant colonies can be found at Piedras Blancas near San Simeon and Point Reyes National Seashore. Aside from these, I have seen the occasional juvenile male sea elephant in places like Pacific Grove and Pigeon Point.

Seal viewing calendar

Seals can be seen almost year round. However, the best time for action is December to March. This is the time when bulls arrive and fight for domination and the right to build a harem on their stretch of beach. It is incredible and quite graphic to see 4-ton bulls charge at each other and to witness the bloodshed. It is also something you have to be lucky to see. If the opponents are mismatched, the weaker male often concedes before it comes to an actual fight. And because these bulls are so heavy, fighting is an activity more pronounced when it is cold. What you always hear though, up to a mile away, is their loud vocalization snorts.

Point Reyes colony calendar, sourced from the Point Reyes National Seashore website.

On the other side of the cuteness spectrum, winter is also the time to see the birth of new pups.

Sea elephant pup looking for a sunset drink at Piedras Blancas..

In order to control crowds, make sure animals are not harassed and prevent visitors from doing stupid things like getting between two charging bulls, some special breeding season limitations apply. From December to March, registrations are required to go on the famous guided elephant seal walk at Año Nuevo State Park (although you might be lucky and get an early morning standby spot). Visitors to Point Reyes are required to take the shuttle to the overlook. No registrations are required at Piedras Blancas, where the elevated viewing trail (wheel-chair accessible) provides everyone with safe access.

So, when will you go?

PS: Of course, if you are from Germany and my generation, you can never think of sea elephants and not have this special guy in your mind!