One of the greatest things about living in the Bay Area is that within an hour you can be up a mountain, in a forest, on a beach or in a vibrant city. There is no shortage of outdoor fun to be had and the fact that the weather is essentially mild all year round means that every day is as good as any for an adventure.
This week’s adventure was over the mountains and down Highway 1 along the coast to Año Nuevo State Park where every year from December to March the beaches are populated with a large colony of elephant seals who come every year to give birth and mate. The coastline around the park is stunning in and of itself, but the real treat is definitely the elephant seals. During these months access to the beaches is restricted to docent-led tours and because of their popularity tickets are often difficult to get (and on the weekends- almost impossible). Luckily for me, one of the perks of being a perpetual student is the ability to shift one’s schedule around and therefore a friend and I were able to take a half day at the office and book into the last tour on Monday afternoon.
Our docent’s name was Tammy and she ran a farm just a few miles up the road from the Park. She had been coming to see the elephant seals for over 20 years and eventually had decided that she wanted to volunteer to run tours herself. Tammy’s knowledge of elephant seals was impressive and she was able to field every single question I had (and I had a LOT of questions). I learned so much.
Elephant seals are some of the deepest diving mammals and can go to distances up to 1,500m and can hold their breath for over an hour. They are able to do this by having extraordinarily high red blood cell counts so that oxygen can circulate efficiently through their system. The males can be 14-16 feet long and weigh up to 2.5 tons. They will beach themselves in December after a particularly large binge-feed at which point they posture and fight to be the alpha males. When the females come ashore to give birth to their pups they will form harems around the alpha males and after their pups are born they will then mate with him.
However, there are also beta males who hang around the fringes of the harems and whose sole goal in life for these months seems to be trying to mate with the females without the alphas realising it. This is essentially the kind of excitement that visitors at this time of year are privy to. During our tour we saw multiple mating attempts by the betas which almost always resulted in a very annoyed alpha male working his way across the beach towards the beta making very threatening noises. Often it is when the alpha himself is mating that the betas take their chance. Tammy pointed out that an alpha is often torn between finishing what he is doing and chasing the betas off of his harem. Essentially, it’s one of nature’s great soap operas and it is never the same. I can definitely see why people come out time and time again.
For two hours we wandered the dunes, often skirting around beta males who had decided to sleep right in the middle of the paths, before heading back off the coast. I really don’t think there are many other tours that get you as close to the animals as this one does. It really was a fantastic experience and definitely one that I will put in my calendar each winter that I live out here.
Año Nuevo State Park
1 New years creek Rd
Pescadero, CA 94060
Photographs – Melanie Craxton