A hike into Elephant Seal territory

Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park

If Winter has passed it means breeding season is done and it is time for molting. Spring and Summer months mean a good time to visit Elephant Seal habitat because this is when the Northern Elephant seals settle down on shore, bask in the warm sun and let go their old skin, fur and even their whiskers. One of the most ideal sites to see the Northern elephant seals in the process of molting is Ano Nuevo* State Park in California. Ano Nuevo State Park is situated in San Mateo County and is also famous for being one of the biggest breeding colonies for these elephant seals. Whether you are there for the breeding or for the molting season you’re in for a memorable hike.

Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park

Our hike began at the entrance of Ano Nuevo State Park where we paid a parking fee and collected our permit to visit Elephant Seal territory. The molting station is a mile-and-a-half  to two miles away and the hike is mainly through coastal prairie land. Since it was early Spring, there were a lot of wild flowers adorning the grasslands and there were different kinds bugs our on the trails. I’m not sure I would have noticed the small insects if not for my little one who got excited seeing these tiny creatures he had never seen before. His then 3-year old eyes spotted all kinds of bugs — red and black and brown ones, and was fascinated by each one of them.

They say Ano Nuevo State Park is also home to the rare San Francisco Garter Snake. We didn’t see them, but might have seen some signs of snakes.

With a toddler in tow, the 3 mile hike was supposed to have been a pretty lengthy one. However the flowers, bugs, a pond, the staging station, views of the Pacific Ocean and the many information boards on the way, ruled out tediousness. The boards had so much of information on each of them that by the time we got to the seals, we had already learnt a whole lot about the Elephant seal. These snippets taught us everything we needed to know — from how big these seals are to what they ate and what ate them, to when they bred, looked for food and molted to how close to them we humans could get.

Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park
Some scull exhibits at the Staging area
Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park
Whisker (left) and fur (right) of the Elephant Seal

This hike, I must say is a great way to learn about the Northern Elephant seals. Just in case you still have doubts after the info-boards, there are naturalists at the viewing points and believe me, they are more than happy to share their expertise on these mammals.

Our destination that day was the South Point Viewing Area of Ana Nuevo SP, which was 1.5 miles from the parking area. (The North Point is another half mile away). When we got there we saw that the beach was a sea of stretched out Elephant seals. Like I mentioned earlier, it was molting season and in the spring and summer months these seals just lie down and shed their skin, without even bothering to go hunt for food. They are said to live off their stock of blubber. That’s why visiting Ano Nuevo around this time means you will surely get a good look at some Elephant seals.

Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park
(Young) Male and Female Seals.

Most of the seals there that day were females, although there were a few male ones with their snouts that look like an elephant’s trunk. Some of them lay on their tummies and others belly up. Another way to find out if they were male or female, said one of the naturalists who spoke to us, was to look at the stomachs. The females ones have smooth ones while their male counterparts bore their genital openings.

Some of the seals that lay there had partially molted and that was quite obvious from the patches on their bodies. One of the naturalists showed us a piece of seal fur and a whisker too. She went on to say that these mammals were not hunted for their fur but for their fat, which was used to light lamps in ancient times. That must have been the reason they got into the endangered lists. At Ano Nuevo, however, this didn’t seem to be the case; there was a beach full of elephant seals at the viewing area that we visited and there was another one half mile away.

Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park
A seal shedding its skin and fur.
Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park
Young seals in a fight

We also saw some younger male elephant seals in practice; they were in vocal combat which we learnt was preparation to fight for a female seal. I can imagine what that place might sound like when adult seals let out their deep – throated cries so as to claim their ladies.

At the viewing point, we watched the elephant seals for a few minutes and listened to the naturalists patiently transfer their knowledge. Soon the late afternoon winds began to blow and our hats were being repeatedly displaced by the gusts from the Pacific Ocean. It was like a sign to leave the place and let the seals go back to their business. And so we began the long walk back (with a fairly good understanding of seal life).

Learn about seals molting at Ano Nuevo State Park
Molting Calendar:

 

  • April through May –   Female and Juvenile seals
  • May through June –     Young Seals
  • July through August –       Adult Elephant Seals.

 

 

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28 Comments

  1. Wow, what a spectacle.. these Elephants seals are sure huge..and I had no idea they molted….

    The hiking through yellow blooms pic is so inviting…

    • Yeah, this was something. Our little one wanted to see seals so when we did some reading we learnt of this place and ended up learning so much about elephant seals.
      Until we decided to visit here, I didn't know they molted.

      The walk through grassland was a new experience. It can pretty hot on a sunny day.
      And that picture is one of my favourites from the trip. 🙂

  2. They look absolutely gorgeous. Seems like they are having a sun bath. Such a wonderful place. Excellent post, Nambiare!

    • Sun-bathing, molting and just lazing around. It was interesting to learn that they just lie there and live off the fat in their body till the molting session is over.

      Thank you, Niranjan. 🙂

  3. This is a lovely park! I really enjoyed watching those pups sleeping!

    • Did you hear the young ones fight? The mock fights were loud. I was trying to imagine what it must sound like when the adult seals fought. I hear they could even trample the pups when they are in the middle of one. I'm not sure I'd want to see that.
      Very informative place, right?

      Thank you for the visit, Kusum. 🙂

  4. Moulting seals! Wow. Thats a sight ive never seen before. MAkes me feel like fevicol hands 🙂

  5. I am glad you got to see the animals in wild, I would have loved to accompany you 🙂

    lovely pics

    Bikram's

  6. didn't know they molted. huh.

  7. Very informative , Divya:)

  8. Fascinating! Great way for your little one to learn too!!

  9. So how did the toddler travel? On shoulders? 😀 The flowers look so beautiful and the seals majestic!

    • He actually walked more than three-fourths of the hike. We might have taken turns and carried him for not more than 15 minutes. We were surprised he walked that much.

  10. God, I never knew elephant seals shed off their skin, fur and whiskers! It is quite an encyclopedia on them narrated tastefully along with the details of the journey through the grasslands rippling with wildflowers and many-coloured bugs. It must have been quite a pilgrimage to a toddler of 3 years! No wonder he was excited. Those are excellent shots but my favourite is one where a group is passing by a field of yellow flowers at the top.

    • USP, I learnt so much about them that day.
      This trip happened because the kid wanted to see some seals. At first I thought we'd take him to one of those places where we had spotted seals (in SF or Santa Cruz) but then hubby stumbled upon this place on the internet and off we went. And it really turned out to be the best place we could go as far as seal sighting was concerned.
      Thank you. so much, USP. The flowers pic is one of my favourites too. 🙂

  11. Amazing! So thrilling!
    Great pics. I can't imagine how thrilling it must be to see in real. 🙂

  12. I wish I could see them in person. My boys would be so in love with them 🙂

    • I wish you could too, Tes. 🙂 I’m sure they would; I watched a few of your trip videos. 🙂

      Thank you for coming this way, Tes. I hope you’ll come again. 🙂

  13. Wow!! That is something really unusual. Though I’m not a big fan of seals but I’m sure my little one would have loved going to such place☺️☺️

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