Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park

Año Nuevo State Park. Photo by Chris.

During our tour of the Marine Mammal Center for my birthday last year, the tour guide mentioned that you can witness Elephant Seals mating in December through early February down the coast at Año Nuevo State Park. At the time I was bummed because it had literally just ended, but I kept a mental note to make sure we wouldn’t miss the upcoming season. Chris and I had seen recordings of their bloody battles on the BBC’s Life in the Freezer and hilariously mocked on Futurama, so we stoked at the chance to witness it in real life.

As you might suspect, you need to be guided through the sand dunes of Año Nuevo point to see the Elephant Seals. The alpha males are the size of cars and can move surprisingly fast – you wouldn’t want to get caught in a sticky situation. Chris and I purchased tickets through Reserve America in mid-November for a December 23rd tour. General admission is currently $7.00 per person and I would suggest bringing some extra cash to tip the generous volunteers who spend their time teaching you about wildlife and preserving nature.

I would recommend getting to the park entrance 20 minutes before your tour time. (Chris and I got there exactly on time and we were considered late.) Entrance to the park costs $10.00 per regular sized car. Your first point of contact will be the park gate guard, who will ask if you’re there for a tour & what time you’re slotted for. Then you’ll park you car and walk over to the ticket house / gift shop. They will print your tickets and point you in the direction of the trail to the guided tour starting point. You’ll hike aways (maybe half a mile?) to a little hut at the end of the trail where you will meet your guide and be able to see a bunch of different preserved seal skulls & furs. An assistant guide will collect your tickets right before you enter the gated area.

Año Nuevo State Park

Before you enter the dunes there are a few stopping points along the dirt trail. Some of them are to take in breathtaking views of the point and others to learn more about our Elephant Seal brethren before getting up close and personal.

Our Guide. Photo by Chris.

Entering the dunes.

As soon as we entered the dunes we could hear them. The male vocalizations sound like rusty cars running out of gas. A few of them were just laying in-between out on the sand as we walked past, only 25 feet away. It wasn’t until this point that I understood just how massive these creatures are.

Hanging out, throwing sand on himself. Photo by Chris.

There were three stops on the beach during our tour. All of them put us within 20 feet, if not less, of the seals. Chris had rented a giant zoom lens, which was almost rendered unnecessary. The first stop was a smaller beach and was relatively un-eventful. A few males lay motionless, sunning themselves to save energy for the harsh mating battles to come.

Seal go blub.

Cute one scratching himself. Photo by Chris.

The second stop was similar. We were able to get really close to a resting alpha male and Chris got some really fun close-up portraits.

Oh hai. Photo by Chris.

Passing another group on our way to the third stop.

The third stop was full of action. Right before our arrival there had been a dominance battle in the middle of our pathway. One of the beachmasters, fortunately for us, had decided to move out of our pathway, but had caused a ruckus in doing so. A smaller male retreated to our viewing area for safety, so a nature preservationist was hanging out on site to make sure nothing got out of hand. While we were there we witnessed an alpha male coming out of the water and throwing his weight around to get a good spot on the beach. Poor beta males were just laying in the sun and this asshole comes up from the water and slams his head (& teeth) into their backs. They would leap in surprise and shuffle away, all the while having a ‘wtf dude!’ look on their face.

Alpha male coming out of the water and beta male leaping in surprise. Photo by Chris.

Alpha male slamming his head down on another un-suspecting beta male. Photo by Chris.

Vocalizing his triumph. Photo by Chris.

Spotted two pretty far inland on our way back.

Our guide informed us that this time of year, late December, is when it’s mostly males and very few females and pups. We only saw a handful of females and one pup while on our tour. Mid-January seems like the best time to see the most battling and February is the best time to see the fresh pups. Our tour had about 18 people and lasted two and a half hours. If I had my way, I would have liked to stay a little longer at the last beach stop, but overall it felt like the perfect amount of time. My last piece of advice if you plan on going yourself is to wear good hiking shoes that you’re not afraid to get a lot of sand in. See all of our photos on Flickr: Linzi’s Set & Chris’s Set.


The lens.