Halfway between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay lies Año Nuevo State Park, the world’s largest on-shore elephant seal rookery where thousands of northern elephant seals come ashore each winter to colonize the sand dunes and carry out their annual breeding cycle.
While not the only pinnipeds who come here to rest and breed—California sea lions and sea otters are among the other marine mammals that land here—the northern elephant seal is certainly the most unusual of them all, characterized by the large proboscis of the massive male and the loud roaring sounds it emits.
Beginning in December, the males are the first to arrive on shore where they begin fighting aggressively to determine the social hierarchy that will govern their breeding activities. (The biggest, toughest bulls will be rewarded with their pick of the most alluring females for their harems.) The females show up shortly thereafter, first to give birth to the pups conceived during their last trip. Wasting no time, the new mating cycle begins almost immediately thereafter. And the adults aren’t the only ones in a hurry either—newborn seals grow from 75 to 350 pounds in less than a month!
The adult seals remain ashore until March, when they return to the ocean and migrate far to the north, where they spend most of their year feeding off the coasts of Washington and British Columbia. The pups venture into the water for the first time in late April, and then head north to join the feast.
During the breeding season, naturalists lead three-mile guided walks into the preserve, taking visitors remarkably close to the mammals. It’s a unique opportunity to witness the compelling cycle of life of these fascinating creatures—from the bulls seals’ Herculean struggles for dominance to the gentler aspect of the females giving birth and nursing their young.
Reservations are required; spaces are often full so it is recommended that you book far ahead of time. At other times of the year (except December 1–14 when the park is closed), visitors can obtain permits to wander on their own and enjoy the beautiful white sand of Cove Beach. For more info, visit here or call 650/879-0227; for reservations call 800/444-4445.