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Año Nuevo's Elephant Seals

Hunted nearly to extinction, northern elephant seals now frolic protected in coastal rookeries like Año Nuevo State Reserve.

elephant seals, Ano Nuevo State Reserve, Calif.
Photo caption
Seal pups loll about at the water's edge like giant sausages.

Get your tickets now. California's most underappreciated sexpots have begun assembling by the thousands at a state beach 55 miles south of San Francisco for their annual surf-side orgy, and you are cordially invited to watch. Reservations for the $4 tour of the area sometimes sell out eight weeks in advance, and no wonder. By comparison, the Burning Man festival—that other annual mass gathering of sandy nudes—seems a prim waste of creative juice. At Año Nuevo State Reserve, the lustiest males are 15 feet long, weigh more than two tons, and are ardently single-minded as Valentine's Day approaches. Their aim: Crush the competition, corral a harem, and mate as often as pinnipedly possible.

The hunks and babes of Año Nuevo are northern elephant seals, among the largest, boldest, and most ludicrous-looking pinnipeds, or "fin-footed" creatures, on earth. Females are pretty enough, despite a few hundred extra pounds around the middle, but every adult male has an enormous schnoz—a corrugated nasal trumpet that he lifts and inflates to bellow warnings when provoked and dangles the rest of the time, six to 10 inches beneath his lower lip.

Lolling about at the water's edge with several hundred kin, elephant seals look like overstuffed sausages, enormous brown or silver-gray bratwursts broiling in the sun, until one rears up in a perfect "L" of righteous indignation. In the fight for females, two L-shaped male sausages may flail and tear at each other for as long as 45 minutes like grotesques in a Monty Python skit. They repeatedly collide, chest pad to scarred chest pad, tooth to hairy hide, until one finally loses nerve and backs off. Then, rather than savoring his spoils, the victor spots another interloper at the edge of his 50-female harem and thunders over the dunes in enraged bluster, only to collapse short of his goal in an exhausted heap. It's hard not to laugh.

The top bull in a big harem may sire 50 pups a year. In one record four-year period, a lone male inseminated at least 225 females.

"I came out here the first time 10 years ago and was hooked," says Chris Shields, a Foster City computer network technician who now spends two days a month volunteering as a docent at the reserve. From December through the end of March, 300 trained volunteers take turns leading 20 to 25 daily tours of 20 people each along the 1.5-mile sand and gravel path that winds through dunes and chest-high coyote bush from a Highway 1 parking lot out to the elephant seal rookeries on the beach. (From April through November, when the colony shrinks in size and you're much less likely to run into a wayward weanling or young bull on the path, visitors who pick up a permit are allowed to walk unaccompanied to the beach; docents host informal discussions there.) "Every day is different out here," Shields says. "You never know what you'll see, but there's always something cool going on." Each hiking safari lasts two to three hours.

Depending on the season, visitors see pups being born, males battling, adolescents mock fighting, mothers nuzzling their newborns, or bands of weanlings learning to swim. To protect the animals from people and vice versa, visitors are asked to keep at least 25 feet from the seals; a waist-high rope marks the boundaries of the rookeries. Though the animals mostly ignore human observers, the warning isn't arbitrary.

"On flat sand they can only move quickly about 25 feet, without resting," says Frank Balthis, a nature photographer and part-time ranger at the reserve.

"If you're ever chased by an elephant seal, run up the dune, not down." Words to live by. Downhill they can maybe go 50 feet in a spurt.

No visitors have ever been bitten or, as far as the rangers know, even chased at Año Nuevo, but University of California at Santa Cruz biologist Burney Le Boeuf says that's not because the animals are friendly. They're fearless and surprisingly vigorous despite a several-month swim and long days of battling, birthing, mating, or molting. "Some are actually quite aggressive," the scientist says.

The females are paragons of self-sacrificing motherhood—for four weeks. After nursing her pup, mom abandons it.

Le Boeuf, his students, and colleagues before them have spent more than 40 years observing Año Nuevo's elephant seals, watching in amazement as the annual crop of winter newborns increased from 12 pups in 1961 to roughly 2,500 last year. "They've made one of the most remarkable comebacks of any animal ever," Le Boeuf says.

Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, fewer than 30 breeding females and a male or two are thought to have escaped the blubber hunters of the 19th century. (Smithsonian collector Charles Townsend was so delighted to happen upon eight healthy specimens on an island off Baja in 1892 that he promptly shot seven and carted the corpses home for further study.) But with protective laws passed in the 1920s by Mexico and later by the United States, the survivors eventually gave rise to the 150,000 or more northern elephant seals alive today.

Le Boeuf and his students have, over the years, glued satellite tracking devices the size of cigarette packs to the backsides of some animals. The monitors allow scientists to spy on the seals during their months-long, twice-yearly migrations. Among the interesting discoveries are these:

  • The seals migrate thousands of miles; males swim north to forage in waters near Alaska's Aleutian Islands and females swim west, out to sea. During the migration, most of the animals never make landfall.
  • Elephant seals are diving machines, capable of foraging in waters a mile deep for 90 minutes at a time, then taking a quick breath and plummeting again. The seals are thought to catnap while they dive.
  • The top bull in a big harem typically sires 50 pups each year. In one record four-year period, a lone, dominant male inseminated at least 225 females.
  • The females are paragons of self-sacrificing motherhood—for four weeks, that is. They forgo eating, and lose as much as 40 percent of their weight in the production of milk. But after tenderly guarding and nursing her pup for a month on land, Mom abandons the youngster, mates, and heads back to sea.

Winter and early spring are high season at Año Nuevo, but there is also much to be said for walking the dunes in the lonely light of early fall. I crunched along the path last September at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday, permit in hand, and I had the trail to myself, except for a covey of California quail darting through underbrush, two northern harrier hawks buzzing the lizards and meadow mice, and a university student from Ukraine, weighted down with camera equipment. He said he'd read about the seals in a guidebook and wanted to see for himself. Ranger Balthis met us partway down the trail and regaled us the rest of the way with stories of the strangest sightings at Año Nuevo.

"You see life and death out there—the whole cycle," he said. Once, as researchers watched amazed, a young seal landed a lucky canine tooth through the eye of the top bull on the beach, killing the older animal instantly. "All the other young males on the beach came over to the corpse and started beating on it with their heads and teeth," Balthis said.

We came up from behind the final row of dunes. Balthis grinned in satisfaction at the pageant playing out before us this day. Out on Año Nuevo Island, a multispecies rookery a half-mile offshore that's not open to the public, a thousand California sea lions barked and yelped their various kudos and grievances. Through binoculars we could see one elbowing and dragging his way up the steps and into the long-abandoned, wood-framed lightkeeper's house.

"They've gotten into the bathtub before, and sometimes you see them looking out windows and doors," Balthis said. Loud cracks sounded above the din; 20 feet from the sand a couple of sea otters were floating on their backs, breaking clams open against rocks they clutched to their chests. A harbor seal and her pup ducked and dove near the otters, keeping a wary eye on the beach, where flocks of black turnstones, marbled godwits, and northern phalaropes skittered in the surf—just three of the 351 species of birds that frequent the reserve.

But all that was just the sideshow. Two dozen feet beyond the yellow rope, eight or 10 elephant seals yawned, scratched, or flicked sand on their backs with delicate, five-digit flippers. "They can scratch any place on their bodies and bite their own tails if they want to," Balthis said. "They're amazingly limber." Three adolescent males reared up in feigned battle, rat noses wagging, only to scatter like pinballs 10 minutes later when a bull five times their size raised his mammoth head and glared at them before oozing down the slope into the water.

It was molting season and coin-size flecks of fur were strewn about the sand like bad toupees. Crabs, urchins, and bits of shell from abalone and clams decorated thick mats of kelp that had washed up with the waves. The air was overripe with salt, dried grass, and seaweed and with the leavings of animals, insects, and birds. Balthis surveyed the scene and inhaled deeply. "The smell can be pretty overwhelming sometimes," he admitted. "But I love it. There's just so much life."

Photography by Frank Balthis

This article was first published in January 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.