elephant seal

Special Sighting: Año Nuevo State Park (II)

Sighting from January 17, 2019 at Año Nuevo State Park in Pescadero, CA.

Each year in the winter, elephant seals come to Año Nuevo to give birth and mate. Last year I went to Año Nuevo in February, and most of the females had already given birth. There were lots of weaner pups and little interaction between mothers and pups. Read about that sighting here.

This year I went on a stormy January day. It takes around one month for a pup to be weaned, so by coming in January I saw a lot more newborn pups than I’d seen on my last trip.

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When we arrived at the dunes with our docent led tour, we first spotted some large males resting in the grass. There were mostly younger males, identifiable because of their relatively short nose.

Once we crested the dune we could see the main breeding area. It was extremely noisy, with mothers and pups vocalizing constantly.

One mother near us seemed to be protecting her baby from any approaching birds. She would hiss and throw sand every time they came close to her pup.

We witnessed a fight between two large males. They struck each other five or six times before the smaller one retreated back towards the water. If you look closely you can see their teeth and the bloody breastplates.

Later we saw one more fight which was settled much more quickly.

We also witnessed a few mating events.

There were a few second and third year juveniles on the beach; our docent said they would leave before the main breeding event began.

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Just three weeks can make a huge difference in the kind of behavior we see out in the field! If you want to check out the elephant seals for yourself, I highly recommend the docent led tours at Año Nuevo. You can also see elephant seals on the California coastline at San Simeon or Point Reyes.

Special Sighting: Año Nuevo

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. 

The abandoned house.

The abandoned house.

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.

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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. 

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Sightings Report: September 13, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am: Farallon Islands Trip

As we headed out into the Golden Gate Strait, a thick wet mist was there to greet us. We saw lots of harbor porpoises on our way out, but I didn't expect to see any whales. That meant it was a surprise when one of our passengers reported a spout while we were passing Bonita Cove. 

Point Bonita.

Point Bonita.

Sure enough, there was a humpback whale in the middle of the strait. We hadn't seen them that close to the bay in over a week. A nearby gull had an anchovy in its beak, confirming the reason for their presence.

We watched the whale spout a few times from several hundred yards away, then started to slowly move west. As we did, another humpback surfaced 200 yards ahead of us. We waited for it to pass us as it headed east towards the other whale. Later we would get reports that another whale was about to join them. We also noted a parasitic jaeger harassing a group of elegant terns before we left the area. 

We headed straight out west through the shipping lane. The water was unusually calm, and as we progressed farther the mist dissipated a little. We saw lots of California sea lions resting on the shipping lane bouys, and a few leaping out of the water near our boat. 

We also spotted a group of 5+ sooty shearwaters, a flesh-footed shearwater, 2 Cassin's auklets, and some red-necked phalaropes in flight in the 10 miles before we reached the islands. 

The Farallon islands appear in the distance.

The Farallon islands appear in the distance.

Once we reached the Farallons, we spotted 2 tufted puffins in the water near Sugarloaf just outside of Fisherman's Bay.

Tufted Puffin.

Tufted Puffin.

There were lots of common murres, gulls, and all three species of cormorants (pelagic, Brandt's, and double-crested). 

California and Steller's sea lions rested on the rocky shore. As we made our way around the islands toward Saddle Rock, we sighted some elephant seals resting in Garbage Gulch. Near Mirounga Bay there were Northern fur seals resting on the rocks. 

We also noted several species of invertebrates, including a salp, moon jellies, box jellies, and pelagic tunicates. 

The forecast warned that the wind was going to pick up dramatically in the afternoon, so we started to head back towards shore, hoping to find whales on the way in. The passengers reported a whale near shipping lane buoys 1/2, but the whale was not resighted. While we were waiting we picked up a balloon that was floating in the water. 

California sea lions on the buoy.

California sea lions on the buoy.

By the time we got back to Point Bonita, there was thick fog and a light rain. We found two humpbacks in the strait. One was moving from the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge towards Baker Beach, and the other was closer to Diablo Cove.

Humpback fluke.

Humpback fluke.

We saw a few fluke dives and some harbor porpoises before we headed in for the day. 

All sightings were reported to Vessel Traffic. 

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If you were on one of these trips and have photos, send them in to info.whalegirl@gmail.com! I'd love to add them to this post for others to enjoy (with credit to you). Thank you!

Sightings Report: September 10, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am: Farallon Islands Trip

We started off the day with good sea conditions and a lot of fog. We saw harbor porpoises and harbor seals on our way out. The forecast said the fog was to extend to 10 miles offshore; however, it didn't start to clear up until we reached the islands. 

Saddle Rock appearing out of the mist. 

Saddle Rock appearing out of the mist. 

When we were close to the Farallons, we spotted our first tufted puffin in the water near the boat. We moved over to Fisherman's Bay and spotted a juvenile yellow-billed loon in the water. 

As we made our way around the islands, we spotted lots of California and Steller sea lions on the shore and a few in the water. Some elephant seals were sighted inside Garbage Gulch. 

There were lots of drifting creatures in the water near the islands, including pelagic tunicates and moon, box, fried egg, and comb jellies. 

We headed off towards the continental shelf, hoping to find whales. We went west of the Farallons and started heading northwest. We found one whale just a few miles from the island but had reports of more whales a few miles ahead from the Oceanic Society on the Salty Lady, so we pushed onward. 

40 miles offshore we found a dozen humpbacks and 2-3 blue whales feeding in over 1000 feet of water. The ocean became a deep turquoise; our equipment said it was 63 degrees. In the photos below, the whales with dark bodies are humpbacks and the ones with light gray bodies are blue whales.

We saw flukes and spouts from the humpbacks and one fluke from a blue whale. One of the humpbacks was entangled in a buoy near the Salty Lady, who reported the whale to the Coast Guard. 

There were 2-3 black-footed albatrosses present at the shelf as well as many gulls. 

Black footed albatross.

Black footed albatross.

We left the area with a long journey home ahead of us. As we passed west of the Farallons, we spotted a lot of thrashing. As we got closer we saw it was a couple of sea lions tossing around an unidentified fish as hungry birds gathered overhead. 

We headed back down the middle of the shipping lane, where we spotted 3 mola mola, also known as ocean sunfish. We picked up a balloon nearby. 

The water as we came in was unusually glassy. The fog had cleared and we had a calm, quick ride in with no whale sightings. 

3pm: 

On our next trip we decided to go back up the shipping lane and see if we had missed any whales on our way back in. We saw a lot of bird activity, harbor porpoises, and a harbor seal as we made our way through San Francisco Bay and then the Golden Gate Strait.

Humpback in front of pilot boat.

Humpback in front of pilot boat.

We ended up finding 4 humpbacks at shipping lane buoys 1/2. We saw a few fluke dives and spouts. Two different whales did tail slaps, with one slapping repeatedly. 

There was some shipping traffic coming in. We spotted California sea lions on the shipping lane buoys and red necked phalaropes in the water. 

All sightings near the shipping lane were reported to Vessel Traffic.

If you were on one of these trips and have photos, send them in to info.whalegirl@gmail.com! I'd love to add them to this post for others to enjoy (with credit to you). Thank you!

 

Sightings Report: July 29, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

Farallon Islands Trip, 8am: 

The morning was cold and foggy, but right away we started spotting sea lions and harbor porpoises in the bay. As we made our way past the Golden Gate Bridge, our captain spotted four spouts by Point Bonita. We proceeded slowly and watched humpbacks spread out over the strait do a few fluke dives. We wanted to push out to the islands while the weather was good, so we moved on from those whales sooner than we normally would have. 

Our strategy was to move north up the Marin coastline and then head out to the islands from there. We had nice weather while heading north, and saw lots of porpoises and some bird activity, mainly common murres with their chicks. Through areas where there were known whale populations, we held a speed of 10 knots.

Common murre father with chick. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Common murre father with chick. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Once we turned west the water got choppier as we headed into the swell. Once we reached the pilot station, the water deepened and the ride was a little nicer, and we sped up to 15 knots. The last seven miles to get to the islands are always the most challenging as the water goes from deep back to shallow again, but when we were only 3 miles away I spotted two spouts 500 yards south of us.

We slowed way down and gently turned south. I assumed the whales we had found were humpbacks, but once they were 250 yards away I caught a glimpse of the unmistakable body of a blue whale. 

We drifted with the two blue whales and the Oceanic Society's Salty Lady. The two blues first approached Salty Lady, then moved away from both of the boats.

Just as we started to turn away towards the islands, the two blues surfaced within 50 yards of our boat on our starboard bow and slowly dove under us before resurfacing on our port side. One of the whales seemed to be a lot bigger than the other, arousing suspicion that we had a mother and calf with us. The photos below, taken by Jennifer Hendershott, confirmed our guess. 

We waited until they were 100 yards away before slowly starting to move towards the misty islands. We made it there in about fifteen minutes, and started floating by Sugarloaf on the eastern side of the island when another humpback surfaced in Fisherman's Bay within 100 yards of us. It surfaced several times on our port stern before swimming under us and reappearing on our starboard bow and moving to the other side of Sugarloaf. 

Common murre with krill. 

Common murre with krill. 

The islands were coated with common murres, and Sugarloaf was covered in cormorants and gulls as well. I noticed several tufted puffins resting on the rocks below the murres. 

Tufted puffin. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott. 

Tufted puffin. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott. 

On shore, California and steller sea lions wrestled and barked. Some of them were perched on cliffs over 20 feet above the water, and some swam in small groups close to shore. The noise of the birds and the sea lions carried far out over the water.

Sea lions getting comfy. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Sea lions getting comfy. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

We slowly made our way around the lee side of the island. We had several birders on board, so together we were able to spot several more tufted puffins, a large group of red throated phallaropes, and a few Cassin's auklets. Near Garbage Gulch we spotted a resting elephant seal. 

After going past Saddle Rock, we turned around and headed back for one last look at Sugarloaf. Our photographer, Jen, and some of the passengers caught a glimpse of blue-footed and brown boobies resting on the rock. 

Blue footed booby. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott. 

Blue footed booby. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott. 

Pigeon guillemot taking off. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Pigeon guillemot taking off. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Red throated phallarope losing its breeding plumage. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Red throated phallarope losing its breeding plumage. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

We had an easy ride back to port with the swell and the wind at our back. We did about 17 knots until we got close to the area where we know there can be large concentrations of humpbacks. We slowed to 13 knots, and then down to 10 when we reached the channel. We spotted spouts by Mile Rock and at other points in the strait, but we slowly moved past them to get back to port. 

We reported the humpbacks in the strait to the Coast Guard and to NOAA on the Whale Alert app. 

Full sightings list. 

Full sightings list. 

A huge thank you to SFWT photographer Jennifer Hendershott, who captured most of these photos. You can find more photos on her Facebook page or on the SFWT Facebook page. 

***If you were on this trip and have photos, send them in to info.whalegirl@gmail.com! I'd love to add them to this post for others to enjoy (with credit to you). Thank you!***