Elephants of the Sea

The life of elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park


FANTASTIC BEASTS: Sometimes considered among the ugliest animals on the planet, the elephant seals are named after the male bull’s large proboscis, which resembles the trunk of an elephant. Male elephant seals fight and produce mating calls through their proboscises until one is too tired and surrenders. As a result of these fights, they bear scars across their chest that remain for their whole life even after their skin sheds.

Jacquelyn Lai

One and a half hours from Palo Alto, Año Nuevo State Park is home to some of the strangest creatures. With their long and droopy noses, these beasts spend most of their lives at sea, swimming and fishing. 

These are the northern elephant seals. In the late winter (January to March), these odd brutes come on land to mate, give birth, molt and feed their babies. Año Nuevo State Park is one of two major locations for observing these magnificent mammals, which only come ashore on the West Coast of North America, according to the Marine Mammal Center.

Their enormous size makes these seals a spectacle that the public enjoys year after year. Growing up to 20 feet long, mature male elephant seals can be 5000 pounds while the females are significantly smaller, growing up to 1500 pounds, according to Año Nuevo State Park docent Steve Wiley. 

Male elephant seals fight for dominance to determine which one is the biggest and strongest. Like a Bongo drum, the males produce low guttural vocalizations while charging at each other, and both seals may receive battle scars from biting each other. 

The alpha male wins access to at most 50 female elephant seals in a harem. These females only mate with alpha males, so only one in 10 males mate and produce pups. 

Males who do not become the alpha are called bachelors. If any bachelor comes up to the harem, the alpha male vocalizes warnings before giving chase and confronting the intruder.

According to Wiley, in the 19th century, the seals were declared hunted to extinction. But in 1922, a group of American and Mexican scientists worked together on Guadalupe Island of the Baja Islands near Mexico where they found a few surviving seals. 

Since then, the population has rebounded and moved north to other islands of Mexico. The elephant seals continued north to Año Nuevo. In the 1970s, the first pup was born in Año Nuevo, and elephant seals have since spread up to San Francisco. 

However, climate change may cause the elephant seal population of California to decline as their habitat decreases, according to Maria C. Garcia-Aguilar, who has written multiple articles on the topic. Despite this issue, there are currently 230,000 elephant seals that come ashore in California. 

Up close

Although the elephant seals are the main attraction at Año Nuevo, the docent shared a plethora of stories about the park and local wildlife. 

These stories shortened the walk through the dunes to the beach where the elephant seals live. I even took some of the beach with me as the sand filled my shoes. 

Once we arrived, there were elephant seals as far as the eye could see. Some were fighting, but most of them were sprawled out soaking in the rays. We also saw an elephant seal isolate from the group up close and it was enormous!

For the mutual safety of the seals and visitors, we were required to stay 25-feet away. However, the loud mating calls made them seem very close.