Thousands of Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park

Just 50 miles south of San Francisco along the Pacific Ocean lies Año Nuevo State Park. Years ago it was an important site for the Ohlone people as they lived, hunted and gathered food on the land and from the sea. When the Spanish arrived in the late 1700s the typical colonialization story unfolds where the Ohlone were baptized, forced into Catholicism, and ultimately ended up dying from exposure to European diseases (in addition to other, more violent acts.)

The sadness does not stop there. Not only did the Europeans decimate the Native American population, but years later they also decimated the elephant seal population by hunting them to near extinction for their highly valuable blubber, which was being used to make oil at the time. After years of constant slaughter, only a mere 50-100 elephant seals existed in the world. Legal protections were put in place and through the help of conservation groups that tiny colony was able to grow into the 170,000 elephant seals that exist in the world today.

As their population rebounded many elephant seals decided that Año Nuevo was the perfect place to mate and give birth. In fact, so many had an affinity for this location that, today, Año Nuevo is the largest mainland breeding colony for northern elephant seals in the world. The site is now a protected reserve where you can only visit via a guided tour. It’s one of only three other mainland locations where they come to give birth, nurse, and mate again before heading out to sea for the remainder of the year (coming to shore only one other time to go through a catastrophic molting where they shed all of their fur and skin.) Breeding season occurs from late December through the end of March and I had been crazy eager to witness this amazing event for the past 5 years.

The opportunity to visit finally presented itself several weeks ago when Alex’s parents were in town. Tickets sell out months in advance for weekend tours, but since visiting family is a fine excuse to take a day off from work, we decided to go on a Monday (we still needed to purchase them a month in advance). I also knew that my brother was interested in going so invited him and his family along as well.

Which is why you see Ellie thoroughly examining each of the animal skulls laid out near the entrance to the park.

Deer at Ano NuevoThere are other elephant seal breeding colonies where you don’t need a guide to visit (near San Simeon, for example), but one of the benefits of having a guide is that you get to learn all sorts of interesting facts. For instance, our guide mentioned that her favorite thing about elephant seals is their amazing diving abilities.

Walking to see the elephant seals

To support her proclamation, she explained that when the first tracking device was attached to a female elephant seal in the 1980s, with their eyes glued to the computer, researchers watched in horror as they saw the seal’s heart rate drop to 3 beats per minute (it’s usually 55-120 beats/minute on land.)  The seal was 2,500 feet under water and, as they saw her dropping farther, they thought she had died. Had they killed this poor animal because of the tracking tool?

Lo and behold a few minutes later she came rushing to the surface in perfectly great health. This, researchers learned, is just how far below the water’s surface elephant seals dive in search of food. Can you imagine being that far underwater? It gives me shivers just thinking about how the pressure of it would crush me like an unfortunate ant who found it’s way under my shoe.

Ano Nuevo

If their diving abilities are not enough to make you go “WOW!” then consider their birthing and nursing behaviors. The females come to shore during the months of December through March to give birth to their pups. For the next 28 days straight they consume no food while staying on shore to nurse their young. At the end of 28 days, the mothers have lost 1/3 of their body weight and are then looking to mate and become re-impregnated by an alpha or beta male.

Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo

Meanwhile, their fragile little pup is expected to head off to sea and learn how to swim, eat fish, migrate, etc. all on their own. “Mama is done with you, little one!” With these kinds of nurturing tactics, perhaps it’s not too surprising that only half of all pups will survive their first year of life.

Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo

As for the males, they actually fast even longer — 3 months — during mating season as they compete against other males to achieve alpha or beta male status. You see, you must be an alpha or beta male in order to mate with the ladies and only 1 in 10 of all males will be so lucky as to achieve such status in their lifetime. Oddly, it saddens me that 90% of bulls will never get a chance to mate in their life, while the other 10% will get it all. This is how a single male is capable of impregnating up to 50 females in one season and how they can sire over 500 pups throughout their life.

The day we visited in early February there were over 3,000 seals enjoying the beaches of Año Nuevo— males, females, and pups. The hike out to the point is about a mile and a half, producing ample time for a significant build up of anticipation. As we crested over the sandy hills and had our first glimpse of this large colony, I gasped and said “Oh. My. Goodness.” under my breath.

Ano Nuevo Elephant Seals

It almost felt like I was viewing the scene before me in a movie theater — a large IMAX screen with amplified surround sound.

Watching the elephant seals from a distance

We saw them kicking up sand, snorting loudly, nursing young, engaging in fights of supremacy, and, most of all, basking in the sun.

Thousands of elephant seals at Ano Nuevo

From afar, in photos, they look like giant logs that have drifted to shore.

Elephant seals at Ano Nuevo

But when you’re there you can witness events like this where an alpha male chases other competing males to the sea away from his harem.Thousands of elephant seals at Ano Nuevo

We all watched in awe.

There were three different viewing sites we went to that day.

Guided walk to see elephant seals

Here we are trekking along the sandy dunes to the third site.Caves through the cliffs

There were fewer numbers of seals at the last location, but there was an interesting outcropping of land that had several caves cutting through it. which you can just barely see in this photo.

Climbing the fence to see the seals

Alex noticed a mama, pup, and daddy seal on the beach nearby, but the only way to view the massive male was to climb the fence, which even Alex’s mom was excited to do.

Male Female and Pup Elephant Seals

Here you can see the mama and pup together in the center with the father in the bottom right of the photo. Another interesting fact about elephant seals is that they have one of the greatest incidences of sexual dimorphism of any mammal. Males are often three times larger than females with an average male weighing 5,000 pounds (yes, that is heavier than your average car!!) and 14 feet long while females are typically only 1,400 pounds and 11 feet long.

Guided walk to see elephant seals at Ano Nuevo

After a two hour hike and tour we headed back to our vehicles in the parking lot.

Family at Ano Nuevo

On the way there we stopped for a photo as Zack (my brother) offered to snap one of the four of us. It’s not every day Alex’s parents come to visit all the way from Michigan so it’s nice to document the occasion!

Walking back to the parking lot at Ano Nuevo

Advertisements

Coastal Trail Hike

Coastal Trail Views

There are sooo many things I LOVE about living in the Bay Area. I could ramble on all day about the numerous things, but the two that I was reminded of while hiking two weekends ago are the pleasant year-round weather and the amazing natural beauty.

Ever since I moved here eight and a half years ago I’ve been completely smitten; so smitten that I practically kiss the ground on which I walk every day in appreciation for how glorious it is. So smitten that I’m okay with the fact that Alex and I have been outbid on several houses by waaaaay over the asking price. I get it. Everyone else is just as crazy smitten and wants their piece of the Bay Area too. And, to me it’s worth it. It’s worth it when everything else here creates so much intense joy. It’s a kind of happiness that feels like a warm blanket as it swells around my heart giving me a sense that all is right in the world. At the same time this happiness produces flutters of excitement in my heart like a teenager in love for the first time. These two feelings coupled together create such an intensity bursting from my core that you just may find me doing heel clicks as I hike down the trail.

Muir Beach EntranceTo soak in all of this amazing natural beauty and experience the fantastic February weather (both of which produce those intense feelings of gratitude), Alex and I went on the Coastal Trail hike in Marin; just 20 minutes outside of the city. The hike starts at Muir Beach.

Muir Beach BoardwalkAfter disembarking from the car we walked through the parking lot heading south. We walked over the boardwalk, took a left (going right will take you to the beach), and then started to make our ascent over Muir Beach.

Muir Beach from Coastal Trail

After huffing and puffing our way up the hill, we were graced with a view high above Muir Beach. This too took our breath away, but in a completely different way.

Coastal Trail Hike

When we glanced to our left, southward, we saw more gorgeous coastline. We kept hiking for a mile or so with significant elevation changes keeping our hearts pumping until you we started to make a side-trip down to Pirate’s Cove. Apparently Pirate’s Cove was a staging area for bootleggers in the 1920s, but I can’t quite imagine why when it seems like such an inconvenience to get there… or perhaps that’s precisely the reason?

Pirates Cove WavesAs we made our way down to the beach, I enjoyed watching the waves come crashing to the shore. Farther out, you can see a wave hitting that large rock in the center.

Pirates Cove Waves

And then make its way closer to shore covering the nearby rocks.

Pirates Cove Waves

As the water swishes around lapping against the rocks it lends itself to a soft, foamy look.

Pirates Cove Waves

And then, finally, the water recedes back to the ocean exposing all of the newly wet, shiny rocks.

Alex at Pirate's Cove

Before heading back up the hill, Alex climbed on this rock and tested his balance in what he likes to call “crane pose” even though there is an actual yoga pose already with that name and it looks nothing like his version. I think he’s going to have to come up with a better name 😛

The couple in the photo asked me where the Cove was and I said, “Isn’t this it?” “Ah, you’re as lost as we are,” was their response. Well, I didn’t really feel all that lost, but their comment left me questioning whether we had truly reached Pirates Cove. There was no sign saying so, but no other path down to a beach that we came across…unless we missed something.

Me and Alex on Coastal Trail Hike

As we made our way back to the main trail by climbing many steps two women approached us and asked if we wanted a picture of the two of us and, of course, we took them up on the offer.

Coastal Trail Cliff Marin California

We continued on and eventually came to this plateau where we could see for miles and miles in several directions. Here the trail appears to lead you off the cliff.

Pathway to the Edge

Eeeek! Probably not a good position for those who have a fear of heights.

Alex on the edge of a cliff

Here you can somewhat see how much Alex is on the edge of a cliff and how far down it is.

Lunch on the Coastal Trail

We decided to sit down for a mid-hike lunch break while soaking in the expansive views.

Lunch on the Coastal Trail

It was so peaceful.

Coastal Trail Views

I could have basked in the sun all day admiring the impressive vista.

Coastal Trail Views

Yep. All day.

Others Lunching on Coastal Trail

A few other hikers had the same idea, but by then it was onward for us so we set out back on the trail and came across another trail map.

Coastal Trail MapIf your eyes are sharp enough you may be able to see the trails we took. We started on the far left at Muir Beach and hiked along the Coastal Trail, took a quick detour down to Pirate’s Cove and then continued on Coastal Trail and stopped for our lunch at the point where it says: “YOU ARE HERE.” This is where we turned inland on Coastal Fire Road and took that loop around back to Coastal Trail. As you can see, there are many possibilities for longer hikes. This particular route was roughly around 5 miles.

Hiking Coastal Fire Trail

This is the beginning of Coastal Fire Road.

Cyclist on Coastal Fire Trail with San Francisco in the Background

When I turned to look to my right, I was taken aback by being able to see the tallest skyscrapers in the city peaking out between the dip in the hills. I’d love to see this view on a clearer day.

Hiking Coastal Fire Trail

We continued on Coastal Fire Road and, despite appearing to be inland, it still offered stunning views of the mighty Pacific.

Hiking Coastal Fire Trail Overlooking Muir Beach

It wan’t until we kept descending for miles that I realized just how much we had climbed during the first half of the hike. No wonder it kicked my ass.

Hiking Coastal Fire Trail Overlooking Muir Beach

As we connected back with the Coastal Trail we saw our launching point, Muir Beach, and continued down the hill to our car. Overall, this was an awesome hike and I highly recommend it. In fact, I want to go back and explore other trails. We were in a time crunch this particular day to look at open houses for those unreasonably expensive homes I mentioned earlier. But these sorts of adventures are a good reminder of why we live here and why the cost of living is so, understandably, high.