We joined the annual New Year’s Day hike led by our California Native Plant Society (CNPS) chapter at Año Nuevo State Park, which is named for Punta Año Nuevo, the point sighted by a Spanish explorer on January 3, 1603. Año Nuevo means new year in Spanish, so it’s quite appropriate to hike there on New Year’s Day.
We went for the natural beauty, the company, California native plants, and a chance to see the elephant seals that winter in the park. The central California coast has its best weather in the winter, without the coastal fog of summer. The high temperature on New Year’s Day was in the mid-60s.
A friend of my wife’s was on the hike, and she suggested that we go on the elephant seal tour, which she said was fantastic. As our CNPS hike started, I ran off to try to purchase tickets for the elephant seal tour. They still had tickets for the 10:30 tour! We informed a CNPS hike leader and said we’d catch up with them after our tour.
For the elephant seal tour we hiked two miles to a point near Ano Nuevo Island, shown below. Four hundred years ago, the island was joined to the mainland, but now there’s a channel between them. Elephant seals are lying on the beach.
In the 1800s, elephant seals were slaughtered for their blubber, which was used for lamp oil. By 1892, we killed every elephant seal in California. Less than 200 elephant seals on a remote Mexican island survived. Mexico and then the United States banned hunting in the early 1900s, and those elephant seals spread back to California. Genetic testing reveals that the entire population descended from only three males so some inbreeding issues might still arise.
In this photo, three (small, black) pups are surrounded by larger, white females. The pups nurse for about 28 days, growing from 75 pounds to 250-300 pounds. During the last few days of nursing, the female comes into estrus and mates. The female leaves the pup and swims off, weaning the pup from mother’s milk. The young elephant seal, now called a weaner, learned how to swim, molts, and swims off by end of April.
Male elephant seals are black, have long noses (like an elephant, hence their name), and can weigh nearly 5,000 pounds.
In the video below, he’s covering his back with sand.
This elephant seal has a deep scar around his neck. He had a toilet seat stuck around his neck.
Several years ago, rangers found him and removed the toilet seat, but the scar still remains. Here’s the toilet seat and a photo of the elephant seal.
A later post will show how male elephant seals battle for dominance over the harem.
As we walked through sand dunes, our docent showed us this midden, where native Americans dumped shells after eating. The shrubs are lupinus arboreus, yellow bush lupine, a California native plant. (A nearby lupine had yellow flowers.) The midden and lupines are in a restricted area where only elephant-seal tours can go; we later learned that our CNPS group didn’t see lupines.
After the tour we walked back on a long, narrow beach with steep bluffs. Two very high tides preceded our tour. Our docent said that some pups had been born on the narrow beach and they might have been washed to sea by the high tides. Young pups haven’t learned to swim yet, so they would drown. We saw no marine mammals on the beach. 😦 We went up the stairs at the end of the beach and joined our CNPS group.
Humans nearly hunted the northern elephant seal to extinction, but the population is recovering after they were protected. We still need to be careful about how we dispose of garbage such as plastics and toilet seats.