Elephant seals first started showing up on California beaches in the 1970s. For many years they have come to offshore islands in the winter to breed; it was the disappearance of the grizzly bear from California's coast which allowed them to finally start populating the mainland beaches as well. There's an abandoned house on an island right off of Año Nuevo State Park which is now filled with birds' nests and squatting seals.
Seals are present at Año Nuevo year round, but during the winter they're there for one reason: mating. Male elephant seals arrive in December and stake out their territory - if they're alpha enough to get it. Soon the pregnant females start to show up, and in January and February they are giving birth and weaning pups. This means that there are lots of mating displays, including fights between alpha and beta males.
At this time of year, you have to book a docent-led tour to see the elephant seals. Spots are highly coveted, so we booked ours in December to go to Año Nuevo the second weekend of February.
Our docent Sue had been leading tours for over twenty years. She gave us lots of information about the animals and led our tour group through dunes scattered with male elephant seals resting in the middle of the trail. She informed us that two weeks previous to our visit the dunes were full of males. We only spotted a couple. Males are easily identifiable by their massive size and prominent proboscis.
Once we got to the beach, however, it was a different story. We crested a tall dune and were greeted by the sight of hundreds of elephant seals grunting and cackling. Their sounds are very unique - Sue described the sound of the male as something like a motorcycle in a gymnasium, and the female sound as something like a mix between a burp and a fart.
Because it was a colder day with winds blowing at 30 knots, the seals were more active than they would be normally. Near the foot of the dune we stood on were about a dozen fat, shiny pups. These were the "weaners." The weaners are the pups that have already been nursed and weaned by their mothers. The whole process takes less than a month because the mothers' breast milk is so rich.
Closer to the water the females lay, some with pups that were still nursing. Every once in a while a male would approach from the side of the group, attempting to sneak up on a female. When she noticed him, she would widen her mouth and call loudly to the alpha male to chase away the beta male.
Often, all the alpha male had to do was raise his head to send the beta scurrying away. When it wasn't enough, the alpha charged towards the beta, occasionally rearing up and striking at each other.
Sue recommended coming to the park on windy, rainy, cold days. She said that's when there's the most activity and the fewest number of other visitors.
Find out more and plan your visit to Año Nuevo here.
My friends and I made a weekend out of it, staying in the youth hostel at Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
They also have a great cliffside hot tub. We soaked at sunset and saw gray whales spouting off in the distance while harbor seals lounged on the rocks below. From the beaches the next morning we were able to spot more harbor seals and a group of dolphins.