South of San Francisco, about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz along Highway 1, lies a beach hidden behind sand dunes covered in an undulating meadow of native grasses. From December through March, if you visit, you’ll hear what sounds like a fleet of diesel-powered tractors echoing off the dunes, because this stretch of sand is the breeding ground for northern elephant seals.
This beach is part of a Marine Protected Area called Año Nuevo State Reserve. These marine mammals, which weigh more than 1000 pounds each, migrate thousands of miles to reach this beach every year, where they mate and then give birth.
For a real-life encounter with these marine mammals, you must reserve or join an Año Nuevo guided tour during breeding season, December 15 through March 31. During these months, visitors to Año Nuevo State Park must be on a guided walk to see the seals, and that’s for good reason.
Male elephant seals, called bulls, are extremely protective of their females and will fight other males to ensure exclusive rights to their harems. Weighing in at 3000-5000 pounds during breeding season, these roughly 15-foot behemoths come barreling toward one another on the beach in surprisingly fast undulations.
What’s That Sound?
As the bull rears up, with his two-foot trunk-like proboscis flapping, he lets out a series of deep, guttural bellows in rhythmic bursts. They sound somewhat like a series of loud farts and burps in an echo chamber or a diesel engine from the early 1900s.
Wildlife biologists once thought that the louder the bellow, the larger and stronger the bull, so the encroaching male could determine by sound alone whether he was a match for his opponent. Although this theory isn’t far off, recent research by Caroline Casey and Colleen Reichmuth at the University of California Santa Cruz has revealed that each male has a distinct “clap-threat call.” If two males have fought before, they recognize each other by this call. This gives the challenger a chance to back down from starting a fight with an opponent he knows he can’t beat.
Mom of the Year
After the females give birth, the pups must be nursed for three weeks straight. During this time, the mothers lose 30-40% of their body weight. That works out to 16.5 pounds per day! As soon as her pup stops suckling, the emaciated female becomes sexually receptive, so males try to mate with her as she makes her way to the ocean for a feast of fish after a nearly month-long fast.
Deep Divers and Long-Distance Swimmers
Out in the ocean, both the females and males dive to depths of 1500 feet, on average, and can stay submerged for up to two hours in search of bottom-dwelling fish. The deepest dive recorded was 5778 feet, which is more than a mile.
When the northern elephant seals aren’t overrunning the beach at Año Nuevo, they spend most of the year in the open ocean foraging for food. For one month, they rest on a sandy beach during a catastrophic molt. They shed all of their fur at once and grow a new coat. Females and males travel thousands of miles apart on their semiannual migrations. They frequent different feeding areas but return to the same beaches to mate and molt. In one year, females travel approximately 11,000 miles and males travel about 13,000 miles.
Although they were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century for the oil in their blubber, their population is now an estimated 150,000. In California, their population continues to grow each year by 20-30%. There are multiple factors involved in that increase, but one is protection under the Marine Mammal Act since 1972 and another is the grizzly bear’s disappearance from the entire state because they were hunted to extinction. With no more bear attacks to threaten them while they are breeding, nursing, and molting on the beach, the seals have thrived.
Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour
This piece is part of the Santa Cruz Marine Protected Areas Beaches Tour made possible by the Santa Cruz Collaborative with support from the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation and the Resources Legacy Fund. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
- "Benthic foraging on seamounts: A specialized foraging behavior in a deep-diving pinniped," S. M. Maxwell, J. J. Frank, G. A. Breed, P. W. Robinson, S. E. Simmons, D. E. Crocker, and J. P. Gallo-Reynoso. Department of Ocean Sciences and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Center for Ocean Health, University of California Santa Cruz, 2011.
- Año Nuevo State Park. California Department of Parks and Recreation website.
- Guided Walks: Explore Año Nuevo with a Docent Naturalist. California Department of Parks and Recreation website.
- “Call of the Beach Master.” Año Nuevo Blog, UC Santa Cruz Natural Reserves, September 1, 2015.
- "Male elephant seals use ‘voice recognition’ to identify rivals, study finds,” by Tim Stephens. University of California Santa Cruz website, August 12, 2015.
- "Elephant seal tracking reveals hidden lives of deep-diving animals.” May 15, 2012; Tim Stephens. University of California Santa Cruz Website.
- Northern Elephant Seals: Bioacoustics. Research: Seals and Sea Lions, The Costa Lab website.
- Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga angustirostris). Seal Conservation Society website.
- Northern Elephant Seal. The Marine Mammal Center website.
- The Northern Elephant Seal: A Life of Singular Extremes. Point Reyes National Seashore. National Park Service, US Department of the Interior.
- "Benthic foraging on seamounts: A specialized foraging behavior in a deep-diving pinniped," by Jessica J. Frank, Greg A. Breed, Patrick W. Robinson, Samantha E. Simmons, Daniel E. Crocker, Juan Pablo Gallo-Reynoso, and Daniel P. Costa. Marine Mammal Science, Vol. 28, Issue 3, Society for Marine Mammalogy, September 2011.