Every winter, thousands of northern elephant seals gather on the beach in California's Año Nuevo State Park. Within just a few short weeks, males fight to be the dominant bull, their babies are born and weaned, and they all return to the sea.
It's a spectacle unlike any other, and every year celebrates the northern elephant seal's return from the brink of extinction. Today, there are more than 150,000 elephant seals in the wild.
Many of them come to Año Nuevo every year, making one of the largest mainland breeding colony of northern elephant seals.
Because the breeding colony at Año Nuevo is easily accessible via a short hike across the sand dunes, visitors get an extraordinary opportunity to see them up close. Tours are guided by volunteer naturalists, who explain the goings-on and keep the elephant seals and humans safe from each other.
A typical visit starts with a 25-minute walk from the park headquarters to a staging area where the tours begin. Tour groups make their way across the sand dunes to the breeding area. The path varies daily depending on animal activities, but lucky visitors may witness the birth of a pup or a battle between two males. The 2.5-ton males make a bellowing call that sounds like a "motorcycle in a drain pipe" as docents like to say. Most of the fights are mere skirmishes, but exciting nevertheless.
See Elephant Seals Now: Photos from Piedras Blancas
Año Nuevo is just one of the beaches you can visit on the San Mateo County coast. Use this guide to find out where else you can go to the beach nearby.
Practicalities for Visiting Año Nuevo State Park
- The only way to see the seals during breeding season is on a guided tour. Reservations are a must, and spots for individuals open in mid to late October. Call 800-444-4445 or learn how to make California state park reservations online.
- No food or beverages (except bottled water) are allowed on the tour, and no refreshments are available at the park.
- Pets are not allowed in the park.
- Even if it's raining, umbrellas are not allowed on the walk because they frighten the animals.
- The walk is about 3 miles and moderately strenuous. The path to the viewing area is not suitable for people with mobility impairments. However, the park can accommodate people with mobility issues on a boardwalk path (with reservations).
Elephant Seal Life Cycle
Elephant seals spend most of their life at sea. Starting in late December, they begin to come ashore one by one.
The males arrive first. Fourteen to sixteen feet long and weighing up to 2.5 tons, they engage in small skirmishes and violent battles to establish dominance and for the right to settle in the center of the harem and mate with all its females.
Females bear a single, 75-pound pup, then they gather in large harems. They nurse their young for about a month, mate, and then abandon the youngsters (who now weigh up to 350 pounds) to return to the sea. By March, most of the adults are gone. The young ones, now called "weaners," amazingly learn how to swim, find food, and survive on their own.
Most animals shed hair year-around, but elephant seals do it abruptly, returning to the shore again during spring and summer to molt. The rest of the year they are at sea, where they spend up to 90% of their time under the water, diving for 20 minutes at a time to a depth of 2,000 feet searching for food.
What You Need to Know About Año Nuevo
Tours last about 2.5 hours and are given daily from December through March. There is a modest tour fee and also a parking fee.
January and February are the best months to see the action, but that's also when the weather tends to be the worst. Go earlier than that, and you'll see only the males coming ashore. Go later, and you'll find the young sea lions but no adults.
You can get more information at the Año Nuevo State Park Website.
Año Nuevo is just off CA Hwy 1, 20 miles north of Santa Cruz and 27 miles south of Half Moon Bay.
The park's address is 1 New Years Creek Rd, Pescadero, CA.