Several years ago, before the kids were born, Rahoul, myself and 2 very dear friends went to the Ano Nuevo State Reserve during the elephant seal mating season. For several years after that, I totally forgot about it, until my kids told me that it was part of the Los Altos School District 5th grade Pigeon Point field trip. My daughter, being the older one, went 3 years ago and quite frankly, I don’t recall what she said about it My son and his class just returned and he was incredibly vocal about the elephant seal part of their 3 day field trip! Bulls, weaners, pups, chest shields – we heard about this non stop. Around then, I happened to open my google calendar (without which I don’t remember anything anymore ) and lo and behold! I realized I had a tour scheduled for today, for part of Avanti’s science project, at none other than Ano Nuevo State Reserve!
It is really a very easy drive there, lasting barely over an hour from the San Francisco South Bay. The sun was shining; Santa Cruz was in fine form when we passed through- biker dudes, surfer dudes, mini skirts – you have to love California winters! Ano Nuevo itself was also very warm, although it did get a little nippy by the water. You start your tour at the Ano Nuevo Marine Education Center, where you are guided to a spot about a 20 minute walk down a gravelly path, past a beautiful pond with a lot of birdlife, where your tour is met by a Docent. The Docent then leads you towards the beach (you actually even climb a sand dune or two) and then you get to see the elephant seals. I had forgotten what a fascinating sight it was, walking up on the short cliffs and seeing hundreds and hundreds of seals, stretched out in front of you, some not more than 25 feet away. The first elephant seals on Ano Nuevo were seen in 1955, and the first pup was born there in 1961. In 1978, 872 were born there and today, the pups number in the thousands (females the same number, and males about 350). The males are alpha and beta and each alpha male has a harem of 25-30 females (!), closely guarded by him during mating season against any attempted intrusions by the lurking beta males. The beta males try to enter the territory at any given chance, and we got to see a few battles. This is where the ‘chest guard’ the males develop come in handy, as they battle by hitting chests. Apparently males can be alphas for an entire season, or lose out early and last no more than 10 minutes! They have huge, drooping noses whose primary purpose is to trumpet out to their competition (elephant seal speak for ‘back off, mate!’)
December through March is mating season, where the females swim to shore pregnant, and have their pups (only one pup to one female) about 5 days later (you have to love Mother Nature and her sense of timing!). The pups nurse for one month and then they become known as ‘weaners’ once they are weaned. They are born at around 60 lbs, and exactly a month later, at weaning time, they are exactly quadruple their birth weight – a hefty 240 lbs! We saw several ‘weaner pods’ as they are known, i.e. groups of randomly formed weaners who hang out together, gathering bone strength and swimming skills before they dive into their long ocean journeys.