The Northern Elephant Seals of Año Nuevo

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 four tons in weight, and long drooping nose, or proboscis. The females weigh up to 2000 pounds and grow to 10 feet long.

By 1868 the scientific community thought the northern elephant seal was extinct, wiped out by sealers hunting for the valuable oil rendered from their blubber. 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. Healthy breeding colonies have established themselves in several places including Año Nuevo State Reserve, the Farallon Islands and Point Reyes National Seashore. They first returned to Año Nuevo Island just offshore in 1955, then came to the mainland and started pupping in 1975. In 1995, 2000 pups were born on the mainland beach.

The seals come to Año Nuevo 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 50 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.

For much of the rest of the year, elephant seals live alone in the open ocean diving up to 1000 feet for rays, skates, small sharks and squid. They add the blubber they’ll live on for the three months they don’t feed during breeding.

To witness the winter breeding season at Año Nuevo, make reservations for the docent-led tours of the breeding area. From April to November you can observe the elephant seals and other residents by obtaining a permit to walk out to the point.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume One: Oregon to Monterey (2nd Edition) by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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