In this week’s Travel Photo of the Week we head to the rugged central California coast to visit an elephant seal rookery where two females argue for space. San Simeon’s elephant seal rookery is the southern range of these fascinating marine mammals. This small stretch of beach is the noisiest, most smelly, beautiful beach you can imagine. The strong pounding surf, constant wind, strong fishy smell and the tremendous barking of the seals hits you in the parking lot. Don’t let the assault on your senses dissuade you, this area is one of the best locations for observing these amazing creatures. We visited in mid-April and while the wind made it bitingly cold, none of the folks huddled together down the boardwalk, including us, wanted to return to the warmth of the cars.
Hunted to near extinction for their oil-rich blubber, elephant seals are making a significant come back from a small group of less than one hundred in 1880 to their present day numbers of over 160,000. For only a few months a year elephant seals haul themselves on to the beach to give birth, breed and molt. The rest of their lives are completely aquatic. While searching for food they are capable of diving to great depths of two thousand feet, with records of five thousand feet. Average dive time is twenty minutes but they are capable of dives lasting over an hour. After resting on the surface for two to four minutes they can do it again continuing this diving pattern twenty four hours a day. Females dine primarily upon squid while the males dine upon small sharks, rays and bottom dwelling fish.
When is the best time to observe these creatures? Breeding season starts in the winter with large adult males hauling up to battle for dominance. Females arrive throughout December into February, with most births happening the end of January. The females remain on the beach for about five weeks, while the males stay for 100 days all the while fasting, losing about one third of their body weight. The new borns spend the spring learning to swim but stick mostly on the beach. Elephant seals go through a “catastrophic molt” where the entire layer of skin and hair is shed at one time. With staggered molting times during the summer and juveniles resting in the fall there are almost always elephant seals on the beach at the San Simeon elephant seal rookery.
Consider combining with a trip to San Simeon’s famous Hearst Castle for a scenic and historic trip up the breathtaking Pacific Coast Highway. For a complete custom itinerary of driving the PCH contact the Travel Consultants at GW Nunn Adventures.
Want more information about these fascinating creatures check out this National park service website about the reserve http://www.nps.gov/pore/naturescience/elephant_seals.htm