Ano Nuevo State Park
Breeding Elephant Seal Tours
Ano Nuevo State Park is surrounded all year long with spectacular marine and bird life. Included is the largest mainland breeding colony for the northern elephant seal, Ano Neuvo Point is on a major migratory bird route, and Ano Neuvo Island is in the heart of two major Marine Conservation Areas. It is located about 25 miles south of Half Moon Bay and 20 miles north of Santa Cruz. See below for map and more things to do.
Breeding Elephant Seal Tour: December 15 – March 31
This is the most exciting time of year … we recommend January 15th-February 15th in particular since this is when you can see thousands on the sand dunes, the bulls are fighting and the pups are being born.
See 2-3 ton, 16-foot-long male elephant seals skirmish for dominance during breeding season. Their noses resemble an elephant’s trunk (hence the name), the males loudly roar & fight, and they are some the largest pinnepeds (flipper footed) on earth. Thousands of elephant seals and sea lions gather for a 3-month orgy of fighting, mating, and birthing.
To see this unique sight you must be on a guided walk. This naturalist-led tour is about 2.5 hours and 3 miles long. The cost is $7 and advance reservations are highly recommended. Tickets are on sale approximately two months in advance of the tour date and they typically run out very quickly on weekends. See more details.
Here are some interesting facts we learned on our last visit:
- They are named elephant seals due to the bulls’ large size (4000-6000 lbs) and long floppy noses. A mid-sized SUV will weigh 4000-5000 lbs but is less dense. Faster too, since on land these massive mammals crawl like giant caterpillars. :)
- They have no natural predators (except sharks & man) and thus are not afraid of humans. Therefore, visitors are sometimes allowed as close as 25 feet during tours unless they seals get agitated among themselves.
- In the 1800s elephant seals were slaughtered for their blubber oil and were effectively wiped out; fewer than 200 existed in 1892, all on the remote island of Guadalupe, Mexico. In 1922 Mexico gave them protected status followed by the U.S. a few years later. The first males returned to Ano Nuevo in 1965 and you can see over 2000 seals at a time on the beaches at Ano Nuevo.
- They live mainly at sea and travel about 5000 miles on their yearly journey between 1-2 month visits to their breeding grounds. When they first arrive they are much fatter since they neither eat nor drink during their 1-2 month visits to the mainland.
- While at sea elephant seals typically dive deeply, to feed and to avoid sharks near the surface, for about 20 minutes and come up to breathe for only a couple of minutes. However, they are able to stay under water for over 2 hours and do sometimes feed near the surface at night (when it is harder for sharks to see them).
- 800-1600 lb females begin to arrive at Ano Nuevo in December and give birth to 1 pup/female 3-6 days later. The pup weighs about 70 lbs at birth and rapidly grows to 250-300 lbs in about 28 days from feeding on its mother’s rich milk (up to 55% fat, the richest mother’s milk in the animal kingdom). Much thinner now, after birthing & nurturing a pup all the while not eating, and after mating several times the females abruptly desert their pup and leave for the sea for another 5000 mile feeding foray. Pups stick around a few more months, learning to swim and fish, before heading to sea through the gauntlet of sharks that sometimes congregate near Ano Nuevo Island.
- The 300-350 acre sand dune field at Ano Nuevo is still changing, due to wind and decreased sand, making it one of the few remaining active sand dune fields in California.
- This is a great spot for naturalists with large numbers of bird species, other pinnepeds (marine mammals with flippers) and land animals in the area though they are more difficult to spot. During the spring 10-15 foot water spouts of California gray whales can sometimes be seen in the deeper waters beyond Ano Nuevo Island (which was formerly a manned lighthouse). Check with park headquarters for hiking permits.
MORE THINGS TO SEE AT ANO NUEVO STATE PARK
All Year Long
The park has a Marine Education Center, naturalist-guided walks and a variety of nature trails where you can take self-guided walks.
A $10 entrance fee/car is required to enter. Obtain your free Visitor Permit, which is required for self-guided walks, from the entrance station between 8:30 am and 3:30 p.m. Note that the park is open for day use only, no bikes are allowed, and no pets are allowed even in the parking lots.
Up to 10,000 live elephant seals visit Ano Nuevo each year and some hang around the entire year along with a wide variety of other marine life … since Ano Nuevo Park and Ano Nuevo Island, located just off shore, are within two major state-protected Marine Conservation Areas.
Besides massive northern elephant seals there are also plenty of other pinnepeds, animals with flippers, in the area. Small harbor seals with mottled coats live on Ano Nuevo Island (which is closed to the public) all year and breed there in April and May … you can often see their heads bobbing in the surf. Yellowish Steller sea lions mate on the island starting mid-August. Dark brown California sea lions don’t breed at Ano Nuevo but hundreds do stop to rest at the island in September-October during their annual feeding migration northward from rookeries in Mexico.
Fall & Spring Migration Seasons
Ano Neuvo Point is an excellent birding location right on a major migratory route. It’s an especially good for watching both birds and whales migrating north and south. Through the spring months the 10-15 foot spouts of the Gray Whales can sometimes been seen as they migrate northward from Baja California to the Bering Sea.
Seal Molting Season: April 1 -August 31
Elephant seals shed their fur all at once in what is called a catastrophic molt. They return to Ano Nuevo for this molting process at different times depending on their ages: April-May for juveniles and females, May-June for sub-adult males, and July-August for adult males.
During molting season the Natural Preserve is open for self-guided hiking (by Visitor Permit only). Obtain your free Visitor Permit daily from the entrance station, between 8:30 am and 3:30 p.m. No reservations are required and no Guided Walks are offered.
Fall Haul Out Season: September 1 – November 30
During this season small numbers of yearling elephant seals “haul out” of the water and hang around on the beaches as part of their development. During this season the Natural Preserve is open for self-guided hiking by Visitor Permit only.
Natural Preserve Closed: December 1-14
Pregnant females and adult males begin to arrive on the beaches and form harems. Visitors are not allowed during this season.
Breeding Season and Walks: December 15 – March 31st
Northern elephant seals come ashore to give birth and to mate from early December through March. See more details above. Bull seals engage in battles for breeding access to the females from early December through January. By early March, most of the adults have returned to the sea.
Pups are born from late December to early February after which their mothers nurse them for about a month before mating and returning to the sea. The pups remain behind on their own through March basking in the sun and learning to swim in the intertidal zones.
The reserve offers naturalist-guided walks, between December 15 -March 31, which feature these active elephant seals in their natural habitat. To view the seals during this season, you must be on a guided walk. These popular three-mile walks over rolling sand dunes last about two and a half hours and are often “sold out” on weekends. See more details including reservations.