Dawn and I slipped down the coast on a misty, windswept afternoon last week to check out breeding season and the resulting offspring at Año Nuevo State Park. The coastal park is home base to as many as 10,000 elephant seals who return twice a year to alternately breed and molt between sea voyages of up to 12,000 miles.Life at sea involves fattening up on a diet of squid, lanternfishes, skates and hagfish, when not fending off great white sharks. Breeding season, which runs from mid-December through March, is essentially one long noisy beach party.
Birth, death, debauchery and more than a little adolescent angst abound – the full circle of life. Harems of females lay cheek to jowl on the dunes while the males tussle for power and attention. Loners and losers, many of them male “weaners” who have outgrown their mothers but are too small to take on a two-ton alpha male, spend solitary days prone in fog-shrouded puddles or beneath willow bushes in the dunes. Gulls cruise intentionally overhead preying on lost pups, and coyotes prowl the dunes at night looking for leftovers.
The activity is accompanied by a natural symphony featuring screeching gulls, the deep, hollow grunts of posturing males, the chatter of territorial females and the pitiful squawks of infants who want their mothers and want them now.
The racket is wonderful.
Trailhead: Año Nuevo Point Trail begins at the park’s Marine Education Center.
Distance/difficulty: 3-4 miles, round trip/Easy, although a short portion going over the coastal dunes can be strenuous.
- A cool, damp and breezy walk to the breeding grounds through fields of willow shrub, coyote bush and lupine.
- Well-tended crushed granite trails to the sand with a short walk across low dunes to a viewing boardwalk. If walking the dunes will be a problem, the State Park Service can arrange a ride to the boardwalk or supply a beach wheelchair. Find more details here.
- A rich mélange of wildlife inhabit the region, including vultures, hawks, mule deer, Steller seal lions, coyotes, rhinoceros auklets (a puffin-like bird that nests underground), Brandt’s cormorants and bobcats. Look for tracks in the dunes.
- A rugged shoreline and shallows broken by outcroppings of Monterey chert, which occasionally snag pleasure craft that stray too close to shore.
- A view of the abandoned light station on Año Nuevo Island, which was the tip of a peninsula as late as the 18th century before wind, water and seismic activity separated it from shore. The island is closed to visitors and overrun by sea lions, which occupy both floors of the rambling remnants of the light keeper’s home. Take a virtual tour via “live” island cam.
- Access during the breeding season is limited to guided docent tours. Cost is $7 per person plus parking ($10 per car, unless you have an annual California State Parks pass) . Reservations are highly recommended and weekends sell out quickly. Find more information here.
- The dunes can be swampy in spots during the rainy season. Wear waterproof shoes.
- Foggy mornings, cloudy afternoons and winter rain are common. Sunshine is rare. Layer up.
Año Nuevo was named by Spanish explorers who sailed past the point of land, now an island, on New Year’s Day 1603 while mapping a northern route to the Philippine Islands.
- School days for the children of the light keeper on Año Nuevo Island consisted of a chill row to shore and carriage ride to the hamlet of Davenport to attend class for the week before a reverse trip home on Fridays.
- The flexible branches of the indigenous willows were used by the Ohlone, native Americans who once populated the region, to bind reeds from coastal ponds for shelter, baskets and watercraft. Burial mounds are visible among the dunes. Tools made of the local Monterey chert have been found among native American artifacts unearthed as far away as Utah.
*Many thanks to our volunteer docent, Bob Fox.