February 26, 2013 7 Comments
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.
There 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It almost felt like I was viewing the scene before me in a movie theater — a large IMAX screen with amplified surround sound.
We saw them kicking up sand, snorting loudly, nursing young, engaging in fights of supremacy, and, most of all, basking in the sun.
From afar, in photos, they look like giant logs that have drifted to shore.
We all watched in awe.
There were three different viewing sites we went to that day.
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.
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.
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.
After a two hour hike and tour we headed back to our vehicles in the parking lot.
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!