elephant seals in breaking surf at Año Nuevo State Park picture

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park chuckle at visitor's discomfort.

Hwy. 1: Gloriously foul elephant seals

Road Journals Blog—A highlight of my trip up Hwy. 1 for my VIAmagazine.com story was a stop at Ano Nuevo State Park, home of seals, sea lions, otters, and the animals for which the place is best known—the massive elephant seals.

I hiked from the parking lot through a couple miles of winding trails, struggled up a sand dune on a hot day, and arrived panting at a platform above the beach for a view of the noble creatures.

And I almost gagged.

“Oh, you're smelling the sea lions,” said the volunteer ranger, chuckling at my discomfort. “The sea lions, they come up and poop right here on the beach. Hundreds of them. At least the elephant seals have the decency to go for a swim first.”

Elephant seals, in addition to being about the ugliest creatures on land or sea, are massive, weighing upward of 5,000 pounds and measuring up to 16 feet long.  Hunted almost to extinction for their oil by sailors in the late 1800s, the population has slowly recovered along the California and Mexican coastlines.

The seals arrive by the hundreds from December through March to mate and spawn their young (which put on so much blubber to survive the winter that they balloon from 75 pounds at birth to as much as 300 pounds within a month, and are literally immobile until their fat burns off).

For the rest of the year, smaller groups of mostly male adults and juveniles stop by the beach to rest between feeding runs in the ocean. Two dozen of them lounged in the heat on the beach on the day I visited, baking in the sun and fermenting a smell that suggests a hundred wet dogs that have rolled in muck, mixed with the lingering aroma of people who had been eating nothing but cabbage for a month.

I’ll never look at the Discovery Channel videos again without imagining that extra sensory input. Follow the ranger’s advice and stand upwind.

Q: Have you seen elephant seals up close? What did you think?

Bill Fink wrote about Hwy. 1, from Pacifica to Santa Cruz, for VIAmagazine.com.

Photography by Michael "Mike" L. Baird

This blog post was first published in February 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.