We went on the guided tour to see the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo last week. They have the tours between December and March, where the new-born elephant pups are hanging out around the beaches and sand-dunes, being nursed by mothers, or bullied by juveniles, or baby-sat by male adults. I think elephant seals are named so, because their noses are elongated, not as long as a land elephant’s trunk, but thicker; it reminded me of a camel’s nose.
Since California law prohibits getting within 25 feet of any of these creatures; plus a male elephant seals weighs as much as an SUV truck, and can move almost as fast as one, you need a trained docent to guide you to see them. You need to make reservations in advance; and it’s a long walk from the visitor center to the viewing points, part of it on high sand dunes, but it’s worth it. Seeing all those elephant seals just lolling about on the sand is a priceless experience. There’s only a couple of other elephant seal rookeries in the world.
While all I cared about at first was seeing the elephant seals around like marine mammal torpedos, the things the docent explained about the habits and norms of the elephant seals was pretty amazing too. Like the fact that they can stay under water for over an hour, before surfacing for air. Or that they hang out at 2000 feet below sea level. Or that the females come ashore once a year to give birth, but before they leave for their next trip out, they’ve mated. So they swim out with fertilized eggs, but the eggs don’t implant until 4 months later, because gestation is 8 months, which makes it a total of twelve months in between their annual visits to shore. It’s incredible to think they they spend most of their life being pregnant. Can you imagine if human women spent most of their life being pregnant, or even just having PMS!?
The elephant seals were almost hunted to extinction (among other things, their blubber was so ‘pure’ that it was used as a lubricant for watch parts. As opposed to whale blubber, which was used mainly for oil lamps.) Their population is now in the 100,000s, although because they’re only descended from a couple dozen originals, there would be a genetic bottleneck issue if they were struck by an infectious disease.
The males are very territorial, and there is a very strict pecking order of hierarchy they establish. Occasionally a younger elephant seal who thinks he’s hot stuff will challenge another male, by vocalizing. Being used to the barking sounds of the seal lions at Pier 39, I was expecting the elephant seals to sound similar, But they have a deeper, more echo-ey sound, that sounds like, well if your household plumbing ever sounded like that, you’d be in trouble. The males will also chest-slam each other in mock fights (over time they’ll develop chest armour skin from the accumulated scars), and use their little tusks to slash away at their opponent. The pair we saw fighting each other actually drew blood, although the docent assured us that it didn’t really injure them that much, because they have a layer of blubber that’s 4 inches thick!
Even with such a thick ‘skin’, they often use their flippers to flick sand on themselves while on the beach. It partially acts as sunscreen, but it also helps them cool off, since the sand is wet and cold. They’re so adapted to the cold waters of the deep, and with such thick ‘wetsuit’ skin, they actually find lying in the sun on the beach very hot!
You can still see the elephant seals at other times of the year at Ano Nuevo, simply by getting a free permit from the visitor’s center. Bring binoculars. And as always, your visit will be enhanced by eating at Duarte’s Tavern in nearby Pescadero!