For all of you wildlife lovers, here is a 5-minute video of sea otters in British Columbia:
Seal Adventures draws many visitors to Ano Nuevo State Park but there is a lot more to this park than the carrying-ons of elephant seals. Just the other morning as I walked towards the Cove Beach area of the park I came across the following scene:
Oh boy, I’d say somebody had a lovely meal. Who? My guess is the bob cat who lives near the pond above Cove Beach, Here he is below. I wonder if he thinks he is camouflaged and we can’t see him? Nice try you; we see you.
Here is another photo of our Ano Nuevo bob cat. I think he’s saying, “What are you looking at?” And then, with real New York City attitude he is saying, “You lookin’ at me? Huh? You lookin’ at me, punk?”
The things you see when the tide is at minus one is simply amazing: life in tide pools; life, shells and fossils on rocks and in caves; a fossilized whale vertebrae atop a rocky promontory; and huge rocks and logs pushed up against the back of walls inside of caves (that you know will some day undermine the foundation of the cave and then the whole thing will come crashing down!). Simply amazing.
The first four photographs are mine. The slideshow set is courtesy of fellow docent, Cindy Rocha. She uses a professional camera; my photos are from my trusty iPod 4. Enjoy!
Oh boy! This weekend at Ano Nuevo State Park was super crazy. Yesterday I led two hikes and today I led two more. Each hike is four miles round trip. I hiked 16 miles over mostly sand and dunes. That is normal for me — I lead hikes (as a volunteer naturalist) at the park. This is Ano Nuevo’s busiest season: The adult elephant seals are ashore birthing, breeding and mating.
Who’s in Charge?
The elephant seals delighted us with their antics as they moved around, inadvertently penning us in. One group of hikers got trapped for a while atop what we call High Willow, a prime elephant seal viewing area. Oh, don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The park rangers gave the go ahead for the group before mine to enter the High Willow viewing area. Then when I arrived with my group about 15-minutes later, the elephant seals had blocked the path. Federal law mandates that we not be within 25 feet of the animals. I couldn’t, therefore, take my group up to High Willow and the group that was already there couldn’t get back down. The seals were in charge.
Equal Access Boardwalk
Then there was the business with the equal access boardwalk that some of us slaved over this summer as we got it ready for this current season. Yesterday I was able to lead hikes out to that viewing spot. But today? Not at all. The rangers had to close off entry to the boardwalk because the animals had taken it over! I guess they’re saying to themselves, “Silly humans! It’s accessible to us but not to you!” I am sure happy to see the seals doing so well and taking charge of their habitat. Too bad though, that the wheelchair visitors couldn’t really get to see much of the seals’ carrying-ons.
If you are interested in learning more about the elephant seal hikes, click this link for a short overview: Ano Nuevo by Every Trail. I do not agree with the writer that the seals “aren’t pretty.” I say, I say, they are just as gorgeous as my sea cows that roamed the sea on the south coast of Jamaica. Soooo cute!
***** ***** *****
Some previous posts on elephant seals and Ano Nuevo State Park are listed below:
Costonoa is a great place for hiking and camping. It is just down the coast from Pigeon Point and not too far from the Pie Ranch and Ano Nuevo State Park. I last hiked here during the first week of October and although it was over eighty degrees, I still needed a long-sleeved shirt. (This was only for the portion of the hike that was open to the coastal breezes.)
I wonder which word once preceded the trail titled, “Heaven Loop”? What has been erased?
Ohlone/Costonoa is a collective name for the First Peoples who once lived in Central California and along the Northern California coast. Many of their legends are centered around coyote, eagle and humming bird, all of which can be found in this part of California.
Here is a map of Costonoan languages and major villages. (The black dots and corresponding lines indicate current day place names.)
What are Elephant Seals? We are deep sea divers and long distance travelers. We fast for long periods of time while on land. Our food sources, skates and squids, small sharks and other seafood are so far away – thousands upon thousands of miles – that once we arrive on land, we have to wait a very long time before eating again.
Northern and Southern Elephant Seals
There are two types of elephant seals: the northern (found along the Pacific islands and coasts of Mexico and California); and the southern (found along the Atlantic islands and coasts of Patagonia, Chile, Tierra del Fuego, et al). This article is only about the Northern elephant seal.
Northern Elephant Seals
Northern elephant seals spend most of their time in the ocean, coming ashore twice each year, once to mate, breed and give birth, and the other time to molt (shed and grow new skin/fur). Between the molting and breeding seasons, the northern elephant seal is at sea for six to eight months, swimming, diving and feeding. Incredibly, they remain submerged for nearly ninety percent of their time in the ocean, surfacing a mere two to four minutes during dives.
Season Change at Ano Nuevo
Now that the breeding/mating/birthing season is over, so too are the guided hikes at Ano Nuevo. That means pretty soon we will be entering the roving season. This is when the public can access areas that up to two weeks ago, were only accessible by guided hikes (led by volunteer naturalists like me). The roving season will be less hectic, more laid back and so, I am hoping to do some sketching and painting while volunteering out by the coast.
During the breeding season (December to March), many of the adult males (the alphas, for sure) are on the beach for about 100 days without food. The mature females are on land for about five weeks. The females who are coming in pregnant during the breeding season give birth within 4-5 days of arrival. They nurse their pup for about 24-28 days, mate during the last 3-5 days of nursing and then head back into the ocean to find food to eat.
Elephant Seal Pups
Elephant seal pups weigh about 70 pounds at birth. They quadruple their birth weight while nursing, but lose about 1/3 of that weight during the weaning period. The common belief is that the mom weans her pup, leaves it all alone and it then has to figure out how to survive. The mom in me thinks this cannot be! Momma elephant seal, while nursing her baby is saying things, teaching him/her how to survive and us dumb humans don’t even realize it. That is what I think. I watch mom and pup bonding during those 28 days before weaning occurs and I imagine mom passing on the following tidbits: “Baby, you see that far side of the island over there? Don’t stray there, my love. There are these pretty white sharks who are just waiting to greet and eat my plump little baby. Steer clear my love. Swim in the open. Swim toward the deep my love. Head in that direction over there. If you pay attention to what I’m saying, you’ll be just fine. Good luck my baby. I love you.” That is what I think the mom is telling her baby all the while that she is nursing him or her.
Incredible Divers and Swimmers
Elephant seals dive as deep as 2,000 t o 5,000 feet for food. The average dive lasts about 20 minutes, but they can dive for an hour or more. They resurface for 2-4 minutes and continue this diving pattern 24 hours a day! The females eat mostly squid; the males eat small sharks, rays and bottom-dwelling fish.
The male elephant seals from Ano Nuevo typically travel 5,000 miles round trip, towards the Aleutians where they feed along the Continental Shelf. They make this trip twice per year. The female elephant seal travels a shorter distance, about 3,000 miles along the Northeast Pacific, in the direction of Hawaii. She too, makes this trip twice per year.
The northern elephant seal was hunted to near extinction for their blubber. By the early 19o0s, only a small group of between 20-100 managed to survive the hunts. Protected first by Mexico (where this small group was found) and later by the United States (as they multiplied and expanded their range), the elephant seals have managed to multiply and increase their population. Today’s population is estimated to be around 175,000 to 185,000 seals. All of them are from the bottleneck, the same gene pool, that was discovered on Guadalupe Island, Mexico, a little over 100 years ago. Researchers at the nearby University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), are tracking and building a database on the movement and habits of the Ano Nuevo population of elephant seals. With each year comes new revelations. For a brief overview of the work being done on elephant seals by the UCSC, visit their site at http://news.ucsc.edu/2012/05/elephant-seals.html.
The adult females can weigh up to around 1,700 pounds and the males, up to around 5,000 pounds. The mature male has a bulbous appendage for a nose. It is called a proboscis. He uses it to honk and to assert dominance. For more interesting facts about the northern elephant seal, visit the National Marine Mammal Laboratory’s site at:
• • • • • • • • • • • •
About the Photographs
Photo credit for the male juvenile elephant seal at the top of the post belongs to The Marine Mammal Center. You can see his proboscis is just barely starting to form. Only the males of the specie grow this nose and it seems to serve no other purpose except for asserting dominance, which is crucial in the breeding season. (Not all males get a chance to mate.)
I took the second photograph of a colony of what is mostly young pups, at Ano Nuevo State Park, two weeks ago. The seals in this photograph will be heading out to the ocean soon. They will have many challenges along the way, including figuring out where to go, what to eat, and how to avoid predators like the great white sharks that lay in wait not too far from where they are now. The mortality rate for young elephant seals is extremely high. Only about twenty six percent of them make it to age two. Some of the young die at the rookery but the majority of deaths occur at sea. For more details on elephant seals’ mortality rate, see the UCS”s 1971-78 Ano Nuevo study at:
No wonder then, that once a female is mature enough to have a pup, she continues to have one every year, for the rest of her life.
The old guy below is an alpha male. He has been in many a battle as is evident from the scarring on his chest shield. This photo is the property of Marinebio.org.
Not on the Menu
Since I got here/I’ve been chasing/the elusive/some say unattainable/bacon and egg/on a roll./Saturday morning at Davenport’s Cash Store/breakfast burritos/but no bacon and egg sandwiches/none whatsoever.
Bay Area, I love you, but why can’t you just do this one thing for me? Why can’t you serve me a simple bacon egg (and cheese) on a roll? I’m willing to take any old roll. I will forgo the ubiquitous sesame seed rolls of my New York years. I will. Davenport Cash Store, your house coffee is excellent but why couldn’t you make me a bacon and egg sandwich? You offered me breakfast burritos instead. If breakfast is over, how come you are still serving breakfast burritos, huh? HUH?
This Friday at Ano Nuevo was amazing. There were some great big elephant seal bulls along the paths. Oh they were corpulent, rotund, big. Such fat blubbery beauties! There were also many newborns nursing down by the beach. As of Friday (1/18/13), the count of elephant seals at Ano Nuevo was 1,086 females, plus 575 pups and 258 males. Oh what squeals and yips and bellowing took place. It was a veritable wildlife adventure.
Saturday I went exploring around Davenport, a small town near Ano Nuevo. Its Cash Store is a great place for coffee and it has the best pico de gallo I’ve had in the Bay Area. If you are passing through town on a Saturday night, stop in and see one of their shows. Last Saturday night a local group, Esoteric Collective, was the highlight of the evening.
Around the corner from The Cash Store is the Davenport Jail Museum. Although its Web site stated that it was open weekends from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., it was padlocked when I showed up around 1:00 p.m. It never opened that day.
Some things to do in Davenport are:
The Davenport Cement Plant (Cemex) sits at the edge of town. Just like the cement factory in Jamaica, it is located near the water; that cannot be good for the environment.
Information on Davenport’s early history can be accessed at http://scplweb.santacruzpl.org/history/places/daven.shtml
Across the tracks are some beautiful hiking trails. I couldn’t help but photograph the following bit of train track as I made my way to the bluffs above the beach.
Exciting things are happening in the elephant seal world this time of year. They are busy mating and birthing. The older, more mature males are baring their scarred chest shields, battling one another for dominance, for alpha status. A quick nip on the proboscis (if he can get close enough to do it) may be what it takes for one male to back off from a fight.
Establishing alpha status and territorial right in order to mate is what these males are most interested in doing right now. Fighting then, is merely a means to that end. The loser usually acknowledges that he has lost and retreats. Happily, it is the rare fight that ends in death.
We here on the California coast are fortunate to have several northern elephant seal rookeries nearby. Closest to the Bay Area are the Ano Nuevo rookeries. Further afield, out by Big Sur, are the Piedras Blancas rookeries. These are two of the three to four habitats where the public can view these animals along the shore. (Elephant seals spend most of their life foraging, constantly moving and diving, out in the ocean.)
I volunteer as an outdoor docent at the Ano Nuevo State Park and lead hikes to the rookeries there. It is a spectacular place and is prime real estate for the seals. We do our best to accommodate them in their habitat, ever mindful that we are visitors in their homes.
Having traveled some 3,000 to 5,000 miles to breed and birth on these shores, these animals need to conserve their energy. The distance from New York to the Bay Area is about 3,000 miles. That is how far the females of the species travel (from open ocean north and west of California) to get here. The males travel even further, nearly 5,000 miles from around the Aluetians to the Bay Area and its environs. Imagine how tired they must be when they get here! Visitors, therefore, need to take great care not to disturb or harass them for to do so is to force them to waste precious energy.
Some other breeding grounds for the elephant seals are the many islands off Baja, Mexico. These areas are not accessible to the public but if you want to see what crazy beautiful sights and sounds are to be had when visiting an elephant seal habitat, watch the following short video, filmed at Piedras Blancas: http://www.elephantseal.org/Videos/Elephant%20seals%20of%20Piedras%20Blancas.swf
He moves faster than the other,
a silvery white juvenile,
who is less than a fourth his size.
They shuffle and rest
each moving to his own rhythm.
he makes his way.
Soon to be mothers
have settled in
readying for birth
You can read more about the northern elephant seal and its “schedule” at the Big Sur tourism Website: