Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Año Nuevo

elephant seal harem at ano nuevoI visited Año Nuevo for the first time today. Año Nuevo is a 4,000-acre coastal reserve (aerial photos) midway between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, and it has become a favored breeding spot for the Northern Elephant Seal. Once hunted to near extinction, the elephant seal has rebounded from a population less than 100 seals at the turn of the century to more than 100,000 today.

Starting in December, the seals come ashore to give birth to their pups and then start a new mating cycle. Births continue in February and the pups (called “weaners” once weaned) remain through the end of March before venturing out into the ocean.

From December to March, entrance to Año Nuevo is strictly controlled. The state park is closed except for guided walks, which require tickets. Tickets can be reserved up to 45 days in advance.

Our walk was at 1:15. We arrived early and had a lovely picnic lunch at the Visitors’ Center, an historic barn converted into a small museum and gift shop. At 1:15 we were met by a volunteer who gave us an overview of the park, and then we started the 30-minute walk to the trailhead for the Año Nuevo Point trail.

At the trailhead Guy, our docent, met us. He led us out to the point and across the sand dunes to one of the main rookeries. We were able to get close to one of the bachelor seals (a smaller 3 or 4 year old male weighing a scant 2000 pounds) and then to a number of the weaners.

elephant seal pups at ano nuevoAt birth, elephant seals weigh about 60 pounds. After nursing on their mothers' milk for 24-28 days, the pups grow to more than 200 pounds. Their mothers, having used much of their food reserves, return to the ocean leaving the pups to figure out how to become elephant seals on the own. Approximately 25% of pups don’t make it.

At the rookery we also witnessed a few small skirmishes between females over territory in the harems (an alpha bull will have 50 or more females) and heard an epic battle between two larger males over prime beachfront real estate. There were quite a few pups, including one that had been born yesterday.

Our guided walk ended about 3:15 and we were back at the car by 3:45. We probably saw 200-300 of the more than 3000 seals reported by the 2/12 census to be at the park. It was a great afternoon (helped by the sunny weather) and a trip everyone should take at least once.

The walk is leisurely and well suited for kids, and late February / early March is a perfect time to go. A bit of advice, wear comfortable shoes (the trail is hardpan and sand), bring sunglasses and binoculars, and pack a windproof jacket. Año Nuevo can get quite windy.

2 Comments:

At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Dave Jensen said...

I went to see the elephant seals at Año Nuevo a couple of years ago. The noise alone of the males fighting was astounding, a big loud smack when they collide, like sumo wrestlers.

 
At 8:04 PM, Blogger Emmanuel said...

My 6 year old boy love this place. It is a great famly event. Also one can go there in the morning then to Pescadero to enjoy Duarte's Tavern as mentioned in your other post.

 

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