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.
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.
|Some scull exhibits at the Staging area|
|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.
|(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.
|A seal shedding its skin and fur.|
|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).
- April through May – Female and Juvenile seals
- May through June – Young Seals
- July through August – Adult Elephant Seals.
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