Spent a great Christmas break in San Francisco. One of the (non-retail!) highlights? – visiting Año Nuevo State Park and spying Elephant Seals for the first time. Whilst the park’s rugged scenery is absolutely stunning (see the first couple of photos below), for me, the collective “beautiful ugliness” of the Elephant Seals themselves was the thing that completely stole the show.
It was a perfect time of year to visit. Breeding season started in December – this is when the first huge males started to arrive on shore. And these slick bad boys really are ma-hoosive! Up to 6 meters in length and weighing up to 4,000 kilograms! Later in the month the females began to arrive and form “harems” on the beach.
Elephant Seals spend most of their life at sea, coming ashore only to molt, mate and give birth.
In-keeping with their land name sake, the males have large pendulous noses. And like Gorillas (and no doubt other animals, but Gorillas spring to mind – I am no zoologist!) the bulls engage in violent battles to establish dominance. In turn, the breeding duty in a “harem” (typically comprising 40-50 smaller females) falls predominantly on the “alpha” bull at the top of the social ladder.
Whilst we didn’t witness any full on blood and violence during our short visit, there was a fair bit of low-level aggressive posturing and roaring between the males. And their roaring really is an unique and fascinating sound – extremely guttural and accurately described by our tour guide as akin to kick-starting a motorbike!
Whilst Elephant Seals were once almost reduced to the brink of extinction (they were slaughtered in the 1800’s for the oil that could be rendered from their thick blubber), thanks to the Mexican Government giving them protected status in 1922 (with the U.S. Government following suit a few years later), populations have rebounded.
If you are ever in the area and fancy giving your eyes a visual treat, I would highly recommend a visit. Though note that you cannot visit without a guide and so you need to book in advance as the groups get full pretty rapidly.
And a final thought before I sign off – “Day 2” back in the office after a lovely Christmas break, and I can COMPLETELY identify with the last photograph!