The Elephant Seals of Piedras Blancas

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

Largest of the world’s seals, the elephant seal’s name derives from the male’s huge size, up to 22 feet long and three tons in weight, and long drooping nose, or proboscis. The females weigh up to 2000 pounds and grow to 12 feet long.

By 1868 the scientific community thought the northern elephant seal was extinct, wiped out by sealers. Their range had been from the Pacific coast of Baja all the way to the Gulf of Alaska. In 1892 a small remnant colony of between 20 and 100 elephant seals was found on Guadalupe Island off Baja California. In 1922 the Mexican government protected the colony. The U.S. government followed suit a few years later when the seals reappeared in southern California waters.

In an astounding reversal, the northern elephant seal now numbers around 160,000. About two thirds of the population breed at the Channel Islands, but healthy breeding colonies have established themselves in several places on the mainland including Piedras Blancas in northern San Luis Obispo County, Año Nuevo State Reserve and Point Reyes National Seashore. They first returned to the mainland California coast at Año Nuevo Point in San Mateo County in 1975.

Elephant seals first returned to Piedras Blancas in 1990. Since then the Piedras Blancas elephant seals have established the fastest growing new colony scientists have ever seen. The first two pups were born here in 1992, with 300 born in 1994, 600 in 1995, and 1900 born in 1999 to a colony of 4000 adults.

The seals come to Piedras Blancas to pup and then breed in the winter months from December to March. In December the males arrive, fighting for dominance over groups of females, or harems. The bulls have fierce and bloody battles with the strongest winning the harem. When the bulls aren’t breeding or fighting, they loll about conserving their energy. The females arrive in January to give birth to 65 to 75 pound pups conceived the previous year. The new pups can get lost in the stormy ocean conditions and ferocious male disputes. Mother and pup find each other with distinctive vocalizations. Feeding on rich mother’s milk, pups are weaned within a month, growing to between 250 and 500 pounds. By mid-March the mothers mate and leave. The weaners remain, learning to fend for themselves, then head to sea by the end of April. In spring thousands of juveniles return to the beaches, coming to rest and molt. They shed their skins, then grow new ones. After the adolescents move on, the females come to molt in early summer followed by the adult males in late summer.

For much of the rest of the year, elephant seals live alone in the open ocean, spending as much as 98 percent of their time underwater. They dive as deep as 5000 feet, staying down for up to two hours to feed on rays, skates, small sharks and squid. They add the blubber they’ll live on for the three months they don’t feed during breeding.

It’s easy to witness the winter breeding season and spring/summer molting season at Piedras Blancas. Volunteer docents in blue jackets answer questions and direct you to safe seal-watching sites from the two vista point parking lots just south of Point Piedras Blancas on most days of the year.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume Two: Monterey to Mexico by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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