My friend and I have each wanted to visit Año Nuevo State Park for many years. Because I live in Chicago, my opportunities to go to the park have been restricted by being in the Bay area at the wrong time of year and by not having enough time at the right time of year. My friend, Kristy, lives in the Bay area, but somehow was never able to go. Finally, on a gorgeous sunny moderately cool day we headed off to Half Moon Bay and the south on Highway 1 to Pescadero, CA. Año Nuevo State Park is located at Highway 1 at New Years Creek Road, to be exact, and is 20 Miles North of Santa Cruz, CA.
We did have a perfect day for our drive along Highway 1. Driving south from Half Moon Bay we drove by one exquisite beach after another, a lovely experience. But the thrill of the day was the time we spent observing the elephant seals that come to this spot to mate, birth and raise their pups. We arrived just in time for the 11:30 tour.
We arranged for the naturalist-guided tour that allowed us to view the seals in their natural habitat before coming. This is the only way one can view the seals during the mating season. Tours begin at 8:45 and are scheduled every fifteen minutes to 2:45 p.m. PST, December 15 through March 31. We really enjoyed the three-mile walk over rolling sand dunes. It took about two and a half hours and did not seem strenuous until the final stretch back to the “tent”. (Please read http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523 for more information prior to calling 800-444-4445 for reservations.)
After we parked out car in the parking lot, we walked to what is called a “tent” but is really a building that was part of a farm and is used as a gift shop, museum and ticket office. Right next-door is the horse barn where a film about the reserve is shown continuously. The film was very interesting, not long and really enhanced our experience though we saw the film after we saw the seals. Although there are three other sites along the California coast where the Elephant Seals gather, Año Nuevo State Park is the site of the largest mainland-breeding colony in the world for the northern elephant seal, and the interpretive program has attracted increasing interest every winter for the past 19 years.
We arrived just in time for the 11:30 tour and we were directed to walk along a path to the point where we would be assigned to our personal guide. Some of our group walked ahead of us and some behind and we passed groups returning from their experience in viewing the seals. Once the group was gathered, toilets visited and tickets taken, Roger, our assigned guide led us the rest of the way. We headed up sand dunes and soon Roger identified the strange sound we heard as that of the male elephant seal. Hear it:
Roger stopped the let the group rest from time to time and showed us photos and/or interpreted the signs that told about the area and the seals. One of the most impressive photos was of Roger and a statue of a life sized elephant seal showing their relative sizes. Not long after we heard the first sound we heard we began to see these huge creatures. First there was one, then two or three and finally, thousands. Watching them move was simply amazing and even seeing them moving in the film did not begin to match the thrill of seeing them in person, twenty-five feet away. The mature males weight a ton, the mature females a bit less, but the pups are unbelievable. The pups are usually born within 4-5 days of the female's arrival at Año Nuevo State Park after months at sea, and weigh between 60-80 pounds. They nurse for 24-28 days on the richest milk in the mammal world and grow to 250 pounds at one month of age and then they are on their own. The mother's do not eat for the month after the pup is born and loses 140 pounds.
Along the way Ranger Amy offered specific information and then Ranger Chris also commented that it was remarkable to be able to see the wide range of seals before us, including the new pups, the weaned pups, the females, the males and the alpha males, the only ones who can mate.
The most remarkable aspects of our visit included the long walk through the open dunes, the beauty of the entire area, the size of these animals, their fascinating life cycle and the strange sounds they emit. It was a powerful and memorable experience and I am ready to return at any time. It was also interesting to learn about the first settlers in this area, the Ohlone Indians, and the geology and plant life in addition to three nearby state parks which we would plan to see on our next visit.
Pigeon Point Light Station SHP
Big Basin Redwoods SP
Photos: B. Keer
Addendum: Alex Hearn, who with his family was part of our group, was kind enough to share these close up photos of the amazing Elephant Seals of Año Nuevo State Park.