The greatest perk of living in the S.F. Bay area is our close proximity to the natural, unspoiled beauty of northern California, but choosing a destination isn’t always easy – we’re often torn between spending time at our favorite destinations and seeking out new places to see. For our fourteenth anniversary, we did a little of both – we headed to our favorite stretch of coast, but made a point of finally visiting the elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park.
Our timing was perfect! Año Nuevo has one of the largest breeding colonies of northern elephant seals in the world, and our visit coincided with the start of breeding season. As our docent explained, winter is sort of like an elephant seal family reunion. From December to March, adult males return from deep waters near the Aleutian Islands to battle one another for the right to mate while pregnant females return from the open ocean near Hawaii to give birth.
This adult alpha male – easily identified by the pink scarred skin on his neck, shoulders and chest (called a ‘chest shield’) and prominent trunk-like proboscis – grunted to let the other, much younger males know who was boss of this stretch of beach.
Once the alpha male settled down for a nap, two beta males began ‘practice fighting’.
Further along on our walk, we observed more adult males ‘hauling out’ onto the beach, listened to their shockingly loud vocalizations and watched in amazement as younger males scattered to get out of the way.
Male elephant seals stay on the beach for up to three months during breeding season, fasting and conserving their energy for the arrival of the ladies. Fasting is part of the elephant seal life cycle. After giving birth, females will stay on shore nursing their pups for about one month – all while fasting – then mate with an alpha male before returning to the ocean to feed and gestate. The pups stay behind for an additional four to six weeks, learning to swim and dive on their own, before they too leave for the open ocean.
Each stretch of beach is controlled by an alpha male who establishes dominance by snorting, grunting, staring down and fighting other adult males. This big bull let out a loud bellow and then settled down for a nap, whereupon another large male popped up out of nowhere and really caught our attention!
This big guy was barely 25 feet away when he popped up from behind a knoll …
and gave us the surprise of our lives! As soon as everyone (docents included) recovered, we all slowly backed away. It was incredible! Check out his whiskers and teeth!
Did you know that the vocalizations of northern elephant seals were recorded to create the sound of the Orcs in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy? Without any alterations!
On our walk back, our excellent volunteer docents pointed out one last group of male elephant seals hauling out onto a stretch of beach in the far off distance. If you look closely in the image above, you’ll see a huge male riding a wave into shore (just left of center, tail & nose both up).
Click here and here to learn more about northern elephant seals.
As if our visit wasn’t special enough, we even spotted a bald eagle (being harassed by a flock of seagulls) and two sea otters; I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect anniversary!
If you’d like to attend the elephant seal “family reunion” at Año Nuevo State Park, please keep in mind that during breeding season, from December – March, daily access is limited to docent-guided tours only. Click here to make your reservations. You won’t regret it! You’ll also need to pay $10 per car to park, but don’t fret – this parking pass allows you access to all state parks and beaches on the same day.
After visiting the elephant seals at Año Nuevo, we drove 20 miles south along the coast to Natural Bridges State Beach – home each winter to some 100,000 migratory monarch butterflies.
Monarch butterflies from all across the western United States seek shelter from the cold in this small grove of eucalyptus trees. Here they’ll roost from November to February, hanging in clusters to avoid being dislodged by wind and rain. They almost look like clumps of leaves, until suddenly, the light shifts. As the air temperature rises above 55 degrees, the butterflies take flight, floating gracefully through the air in search of nectar and dew.
It’s truly a sight to behold!
If you love monarch butterflies as much as I do and you own a piece of land in their migratory pathway, please consider planting some milkweed. As soon as we’re settled, I plan to and hope you will too! In the meantime, I can’t wait to revisit the elephant seals and butterflies again, before we’ve all moved on.