The remains of the lighthouse keeper
Made my third annual pilgrimage to Ano Nuevo State Park in early January. My friend Tony and I have been coming here every year since I moved to California. It’s a very apt and beautiful place to start the New Year.
Ano Nuevo Point was named by a Spanish chaplain on January 3, 1603. He spied the coast from the deck of explorer Don Sebastian Viscaino’s ship and, though he never stepped foot on the land, named it honor of the New Year. (Read more about Ano Nuevo’s history.)
The state park also includes Ano Nuevo Island. Only open to researchers, the island and its long-deserted Victorian house make for a striking addition to the coastal views. (Read more about Ano Nuevo Island Light Station.)
At this time of year, thousands of female northern elephant seals give birth and then nurse their young. The males spend their time defending their harems or plotting sneak-attacks in hopes of capturing and impregnating another’s female. (Not exactly romantic, but, since the elephant seals are thriving, this method seems to be getting the job done.)
In March, the adults return to the sea. After having spent three months on land with no food, they have lost up to a third of their body weight. The pups remain behind and have a few more weeks to hone their swimming skills before they, too, will leave the land.
Returning seals have to get past the bevy of Great White sharks that thrive in Northern California’s coastal waters. If they survive and make it into the deep blue, their yearly cycle will begin again.
Elephant seals can dive up to 5,000 feet (1,524 m) and stay down there for as long as two hours. The females tend not to hunt as deep as the males, as they’re partial to squid. The boys are, naturally, bottom-feeders and live off the likes of skate and crab.
Friends of the Elephant Seal (FES), which supports the recently formed colony at Piedras Blancas, near San Simeon, Calif., has a nice FAQ page on the Northern Elephant Seal.
I also re-read “Elephant Seals” by Carole and Phil Adams (1999) each year before my visit. You can purchase the book via the FES online shop, as well as in person at the Ano Nuevo State Park store.
If you want to see the Ano Nuevo colony, you must sign up for a docent/ranger-lead tour. You’ll get up close to the seals and support a good cause. Reserve far in advance, particularly for weekend slots.
Elephant seals are sexually dimorphic. In other words, the males and females grow up to be quite different in shape and size. Males can weigh up to 5,500 pounds (2500 kg), while females max out around 1,800 pounds (545 kg). The signature proboscis, for which the species gets its name, is only characteristic on male elephant seals. Their "trunk" can grow up to two feet long!
Alpha male elephant seals oversee harems of anywhere from 10 to 50 females. Beta males patrol the periphery, fighting off any would-be usurpers. Their payoff? A chance to mate should the Alpha find himself otherwise too preoccupied to care.
Elephant seals have nails on their fore flippers. They are quite adept at scratching themselves, which, at least while on land, they seem to do often.
Females and their offspring communicate through unique calls. If you see a female barking, she may be calling to her pup.
A pup barks at a meddlesome seagull. Rangers know there
Best suited for life in the chilly waters of the open Pacific, blubbery elephant seals cool themselves on land by flicking sand on themselves. The grains may also act as a kind of sunscreen.