Elephant Seals of San Simeon
Winter months are an exciting time at one of the Central Coast’s most outstanding State Parks, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery.
Located just 5 miles north of Hearst Castle State Historical Monument in San Simeon. The viewing areas are open 365 days a year, are wheelchair accessible and free to all visitors. The elephant seal viewing areas are part of the Conservation Lands Foundation’s “Outstanding Natural Area,” as well as a “California Coastal National Monument” of the California State Parks. The ocean and marine environment are protected by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and are part of California’s Marine Protected Area Network.
The northern elephant seal is the largest seal in the northern hemisphere and the second largest seal in the world (after the southern elephant seal). Adult males are 14 to 16 feet in length and 4,000 to 5,000 pounds! If you go visit in late November the males are beginning to arrive to lay claim to a section of the beach. This time of year you will see dramatic battles for dominance of groups of the seals often referred to as “harems.” Most battles for dominance end in face-offs using intimidation but you can occasionally be witness to some violent (and bloody) fights.
The female seals arrive throughout the winter, a few days before giving birth. Pupping happens in full view, right on the beach below the viewing area. Although births often happen at night, I have been fortunate enough to witness 3 live births in one day, during last January. The mother seals nurse their pups for about four weeks and, during this time, the pups often quadruple in size from their birth weight (growing from about 70lbs to around 300lbs).
The mother seal’s milk is very rich, reaching around 60% fat by weaning time. During the last week of nursing, the mother becomes pregnant again and shortly thereafter goes to sea, leaving her pup behind. The pup remains in the rookery, fasting, for an additional 8 to 10 weeks. As the beach becomes less populated in the early spring, due to the departure of females, the pups begin going into the shallow water just off shore. Clumsy with their rapidly acquired weight, it takes some time before they are able to swim well. Most of their time in the water is spent at night, preparing for dives at sea where it will be dark, day and night. If you would like to experience this part of the elephant seals juvenile stage you should take a trip now as they begin to depart by late March or early April.
For 20 years, Friends of the Elephant Seals has operated a group of dedicated volunteers. Docents go through extensive training and are highly knowledgeable in the natural and cultural history of the rookery. When out on the bluff, look for the cobalt blue jackets worn by the docent volunteers. Don’t be scared to approach a docent and ask questions, they love an opportunity to educate visitors. I feel fortunate to be able to live close to the Rookery where these majestic mammals have made the Central Coast their home.
Click on the following link for more information regarding Friends of the Elephant Seal: http://www.elephantseal.org/index.htm