Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tis' is the season

click on the title to see more of my Northern Elephant Seal images

Tis' is the season to be jolly...I guess we all had our share of that by now...
But tis' is also the season for the northern elephant seals to make their appearance in Año Nuevo.
Año Nuevo, a California State Park only about 25 miles south of Half Moon Bay, is the largest breeding colony in the world for the northern elephant seal.

Named by Spanish maritime explorers who sailed around this rugged and windy point in early January 1603 (Año Nuevo - New Years Point), Año Nuevo went through quite a few changes, but managed to keep it's undeveloped wild shore. Even the lighthouse keeper house on Año Nuevo Island, deserted since 1948, is reinhabitated by elephant, harbor and stellar seals.

Elephant seals were slaughtered almost to extinction in the 1800s due to their blubber that could be made into oil. By 1892 only 50 to 100 seals were left. The only then existing breeding ground was on an island off Baja California. Luckily the Mexican Government put them under protection and the US Government followed suit as elephant seals started to come back to the California Coast.
By today the northern elephant seal population has recovered to approx. 160.000!!

Between 1955 and 1975 northern elephant seals started to "colonize" Año Nuevo, and today up to 2000 pups are born here during the winter months.

Elephant seals spend most of there life at sea, swimming from breeding grounds to feeding grounds and back. Biologists at Año Nuevo found out that some of the tagged males swim as far as the Aleutian Islands to feed, the females as far as Hawaii. While at Año Nuevo, neither the males nor the females eat.

Breeding season starts by mid December, when the males arrive.

Here a coyote wanders between the arriving males.

Young males play fighting and practicing for the rather violent battles that in their later years will establish their rank and dominance. Only the most successful bulls will preside over a harem and be able to breed.

Vocalizing, as well as the actual battles, is a form of showing dominance and establishing territory. It sounds like a really loud and hoarse barking.
By the way, elephant seals indeed got their name because of the long pendulous nose of the males.

In later December then, the females arrive. They group together by building "harems" and give birth only a few days after they arrive. If you are out there in late December and early January look out for flocks of gulls. Often these gulls are feasting on the afterbirth and are an excellent indicator for a recent birth.

Here a female with a newborn pup.

Elephant seals only nurse for about 4 weeks. in this short period the pup gains about 200 to 300 pounds, due to the high fat percentage (55%) of the milk.

About 3 weeks after giving birth the female comes into season and the mating starts.


The females might mate several times before heading back to the ocean and their feeding grounds. This kind of desertion abruptly weans the pups, which are then aptly called weaners. Unable to swim yet they huddle together in so called pods and stay at Año Nuevo for another two or three months.

At four to six weeks of age, the weaners molt and the original dark coat will be replaced by a new silvery coat.

Soon after the molt the weaners start to learn how to swim with shallow off shore waters or big rain water puddles serving as weaner wading pools. During all this time they are not eating but living off their fat reserve. In early summer though the hunger forces them into the open water. Here they face a uncertain future, only about 50% will survive their first year.

The best time to visit Año Nuevo is in my opinion right now. But be aware that you will need to make a reservation for a guided walk between December 15 and March 31.
Click here for information about the walks and and online booking .

Año Nuevo sunset

A big Thank You to my good friend Judy Bingman, an Año Nuevo volunteer and docent. She made it possible for me to visit the park often by sharing a lot of her after hour walks with me. Most of the images here were taken during these after hour adventures.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful images and thanks for the other informaiton on these elephant seals. Loved reading it.