Urban Wildlife: Elephant Seals in Ano Nuevo

Laure Latham - San Francisco Bay Area
December 4, 2017

They are built like bean bags. They sound funny. The largest species of seals counts some of the world's best deep water divers. Elephant seals are an impressive winter sight on Bay Area protected beaches and an opportunity for children to admire ocean warriors who come once a year from Alaska and Hawaii to mate and multiply their population on our shores.

Massively slaughtered for their oil in the 19th century, elephant seals were down to only 50 individuals in 1892, a depressing example of the lamp and machine oil trade gone mad. Today, thanks to a century of protective laws and survival skills, elephant seals are once again thriving and their numbers estimated at 160,000. Luckily the Bay Area counts the world's largest colony of elephant seals just a few miles south of the rural town of Pescadero at Ano Nuevo State Reserve. Here's your guide to this unique adventure.

Reserve Early

Elephant seals can only be seen on walking tours offered by State Park docents from December 15 through March 31, and they are immensely popular. Some people come from overseas to witness this unique wildlife phenomenon so you better plan early if you want to have a choice of dates and times. Tours last two hours and thirty minutes, and are accessible to all ages as long as you can walk three easy miles, a portion of trails being sand dunes. You can book your tour by calling 1-800-444-4445 or online (up to 56 days in advance and no later than one day prior to your visit).

What To Bring

Tours take place rain or shine and the coast is notorious for fluctuating and extreme weather. Ano Nuevo can be sunny when you arrive and windy with rain by the time you get to the elephant seals. That's how quickly weather patterns change. Since it's best to be ready for a worst-case scenario, dress your family for windy, rainy conditions and muddy trails. If your kids don't like to walk in sandy and wet shoes, that's one drama you want to avoid. The solution? Rain boots! They are the best way to keep little feet happy, dry and sand-free. Obviously, warm jackets keep the chill away and water bottles will keep everybody hydrated during the walk. Foremost, you want to make sure you packed a camera because there are too many good photo ops to pass up at Ano Nuevo.

What Not To Bring

Since umbrellas and baby strollers are not permitted on the trails for safety reasons, you should plan a baby carrier if you are going to need one. Leave muff and your pet hamster at home, pets are not allowed inside the park. Now the food department is tricky. No food can be brought on the walk at all and that includes kid snacks. Make sure you feed your kids a solid snack before the walk and you have a picnic ready in your car to enjoy after the walk. The picnic tables outside the visitor center have incredible views on the ocean.

What Can You Expect?

Highly-trained docents will take your group along the trails to viewing platforms in the sand dunes where you will see the giant seals from a few feet away (but not too close, they're wild heavy animals after all). Kids love seeing baby elephant seals frolic on the beach, and docents will point to all the behaviors only trained eyes can identify. You'll learn amazing facts about the baby-mother relationship, the fighting rituals and the food habits of elephant seals. If you're in luck, you'll witness male combat and hear the odd gurgling sound males make to defend their territory. It's a full-on Discovery Channel-type tour out there!

Where Else Can You See Elephant Seals?

Ano Nuevo is hands down the best spot to see and learn about elephant seals but if a two hour, thirty minute long walk in the sand dunes sounds too daunting, simply head to Point Reyes National Seashore. From December through March a breeding colony of elephant seals can be observed from Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock, above beautiful Drakes Bay. It's a simple half-mile trail to the Overlook, and docents are often on site to answer questions. They even have binoculars to better see the animals because they're much farther than at Ano Nuevo. You can combine the elephant seals with a visit of the lighthouse and call it a day.

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