On the beach just north of Hearst Castle, a large group of elephant seals comes ashore to bear their young and mate before heading back to the ocean. The location provides a rare opportunity to see the animals up close but with no danger to them or us.
It's hard to believe that the elephant seals would choose a beach so near California Highway One and just a few miles south of Hearst Castle for their rookery, but they certainly have created a spectacle.
Winter is the prime season to see the elephant seals like this.
Piedras Blancas is midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles and just south of Hearst Castle. You can stay in San Simeon, Cambria, or Morro Bay and include a trip to the beach in a weekend getaway in the area, or in a long day trip to visit Hearst Castle.
Male Coming Ashore
From mid-November to mid-January, many people go to Piedras Blancas beach just off Highway One north of Hearst Castle to witness one of the world's most spectacular animal migrations.
To see the elephant seal migration in action, visit the area starting in mid- to late November to watch the adult male elephant seals (some weighing nearly two tons) to claim their land and fight off other "bulls" for their mating rights.
The females wait for the men to spar it out—they arrive a couple of weeks later in December.
The male elephant seal's bellow is best described as like a "motorcycle in a drain pipe." If you can imagine what that sounds like, then you know to expect a view that's anything but quiet.
Large Male Elephant Seal
Even these big bellowing fellows keep it romantic; they start the mating ritual around Valentine's Day. However, that's as romantic as it gets because mating starts only after the large elephant seals have marked their territory (and their female counterparts). Sorry, no chocolates or big loving gestures here.
Juvenile Elephant Seals
Much like snakes, elephant seals undergo a rather incredible molt, shedding an entire layer of skin (hair attached) in one go. When seals dive through such deep cold waters, their blood goes away from their skin to increase their energy sources.
When they get back to land, they lose a layer of skin when the blood recirculates back to it. Think of it as freezing an outer layer, sloughing it off, and creating a brand new layer by reheating from the inside.
Mother and Pup
Most births usually occur during the last two weeks of January. After the birthing season comes the mating season.
The females come ashore and stay ashore for over a month, during which they give birth, mate, and return to the sea. If you want to see newborn seal pups, visit anytime between December and mid-February.
Elephant Seal Pup
Although the first birth may happen in mid-December, the peak of the birthing season occurs toward the end of January and continues through February. The best times to visit for birthing and molting are January, April, and October.
Young Elephant Seal Nursing
After pups are born, they nurse for up to four weeks and grow nearly four times the size they were at birth. This gives them the nutrition and energy to fend for themselves once their mothers abruptly leave, after which the pups reduce in size.
These weaned pups, or "weaners" then teach themselves how to swim. They have to get in shape because an adult elephant seal can dive between 1,000 to 2,000 feet, sometimes for up to 20 minutes at a time—and they do this all day long.
From flipping sand to bellowing at the top of their lungs to raising their young and fighting for territory, these elephant seals sure know how to put on a show for visitors. Just like with any other wild animal though, it's important to stay away and give these animals their space. Watch from afar, enjoy, and take pictures. It's certainly a "must-do" to add to your list. And while you're in the area, you can also tour the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.
San Simeon State Park is one of two California coastal destinations elephant seals prefer. Find out what to expect about elephant seal mating rituals in Año Nuevo State Park, north of Santa Cruz.